Teaching and Learning in the Midst of Iowa Caucus Chaos

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CarlyFosterby Carly Hayden Foster, Associate Professor, Political Science at Luther College

Students were all required to be active participants in a mock precinct caucus for each party, and to be committed to a candidate, if only hypothetically, and only for a day.  At Luther College, a small private liberal arts college in northeastern Iowa, I taught “Gender, Politics, and the Iowa Caucuses” as a three week intensive course in January of 2016. We did our best to consider the social context, process, history, and ultimately the legitimacy of the Iowa Caucuses as we were being bombarded with media coverage about campaign controversies, inundated with real­time campaign developments, and actively courted by candidates. This essay highlights some of the strategies I used for fostering productive discussions on elections, learning about gender in a political science classroom, and incorporating active learning, in hopes that others can make use of these strategies.

I worried, before the class started, that aggressive students might try to dominate our conversations about candidates and elections. That problem never materialized, at all. My northern Iowa students were exceedingly polite, perhaps to a fault. We had thoughtful discussions about various campaign strategies being utilized by different candidates, without ever devolving into an argument about which candidate had “better” goals or was doing a “better” job. That said, several of our class activities did enhance the productivity and civility of our discussions.

On the first day of class, I conducted an anonymous poll. I asked students which candidate they thought would win each party’s nomination, which candidate they thought would ultimately win the Presidential election, and which candidate they hoped would win the Presidential election, and then I shared the results of our poll with the class. The students appreciated knowing where the class stood as a whole, without knowing who supported which candidate. Sharing the results of this election helped students understand the classroom political dynamics, and opened up a release valve of sorts—none of the students voted for Trump, so they felt free to be honest about their feelings regarding The Donald.

I invited local party activists as guest speakers for our class. One Republican (man) and three Democrats (two women and one man) agreed to come and talk with us. They provided insights I could not have anticipated into the interpersonal dynamics of politics in a small town, and the role that the caucuses play in developing that interpersonal dynamic. The guest speakers were all significantly older than my students, and this made for a valuable cross­generational learning opportunity.

Students were all required to be active participants in each party’s Mock Precinct Caucus, and to be committed to a candidate at, if only hypothetically, and only for a day.  At the Republican mock caucus, students had the opportunity to give speeches to try to persuade each other to support their favored candidate. During the Democratic mock caucus, participants “voted” by moving into groups with other supporters of their favored candidate, and tried to persuade other participants to join their group. In attempt to inject some realistic chaos into what otherwise might have felt like a staged re­enactment, I invited campus and community members, and other entire classes to join us in the fun. Requiring everyone to be a Republican for the day of the Republican Caucus, and a Democratic for the day of the Democratic Caucus, was a good way of encouraging students to step outside their own political viewpoints, and attempt to understand the political views of those they disagree with. From this active learning event, students gained a deeper understanding of how caucuses work, and gained confidence in their own political and persuasive skills. After participating in the Mock Precinct Caucuses, several students mentioned that they felt prepared for, and even looked forward to, participating in a real caucus.

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In addition to learning the nuts and bolts of caucus operations, students also made connections between the gender themes and the election themes of the class as they noticed the gender dynamics that unfolded during the mock caucuses. Students observed that men were often more comfortable and more active in trying to persuade others to join their group (in the Democratic caucus) and making speeches on behalf of their favorite candidate (in the Republican caucus). Students also commented on the gender gap that developed in our Democratic mock caucus—there were more men in the Sanders and O’Malley groups, and women outnumbered men among Clinton supporters—that reflected the gender gap in overall public support for the candidates.

This class was “Gender, Politics, and the Iowa Caucuses” but most of my students enrolled in the class primarily because they were interested in the caucuses, rather than gender. Few of my students had any background in women’s or gender studies. Like most of my political science classes, a majority of my students were men. These dynamics made the class discussions on gender challenging (we covered a whole lot of background gender and politics material in a very short time period), but also particularly rewarding, because students otherwise not inclined to sign up for gender themed courses sincerely engaged in discussions about the ways that gender continues to influence US politics.

A thought experiment in a classroom discussion following Bernie Sander’s visit to our campus turned out to be a very productive means of exploring the role of gender in this election. We considered a hypothetical “Bernadette Flanders” campaign (so named after the discussion): Would an unapologetically angry 74 year old woman, with a habit of yelling through her campaign speeches, draw crowds in the thousands, and millions of dollars in campaign donations? Would anyone take her seriously when she claimed that American voters would be willing to support democratic socialism, if only they would listen to her explain what that meant? Would her rumpled appearance, and her marriage to a spouse more than 20 years her junior, be problems for her candidacy? If she, basing her entire campaign on domestic economic inequality and injustice, faced a male candidate who served in the Senate and served as Secretary of State, how would she fare? Would anyone have encouraged her to run for President in the first place? In considering this hypothetical scenario, students found a constructive way to consider the role of gender in this election, even though nearly all of the candidates are male.

Another productive means of generating discussion on the role of gender was to examine the gender gap in support for various candidates. Public opinion polls conducted by Quinnipiac University were particularly useful (http://www.quinnipiac.edu/news­and­events/quinnipiac­ university­poll/) because they provided measurable, indisputable evidence of gender differences in the 2016 electoral environment. Students appreciated the concrete nature of this discussion topic. Rather than speculating about the influence of gender roles or the impact of sexism in the media, students could definitively see how demographic factors—gender, age, and race—shape support for political candidates.

As I planned for this class, I expected that one or two presidential candidates might visit our small town of Decorah Iowa (population 8,089). I did not predict that my students would have the opportunity to see, in person and without traveling outside of town, and all in the span of 3 weeks: Clinton, Sanders, Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, and Madeline Albright, on behalf of Clinton. Most of these campaign visits were announced only a few days in advance, so arranging to attend all of the visits was challenging. Clinton’s visit was a four­hour ordeal, Sanders (for those who got there early enough to get seats) and Cruz (for those who stayed through the question and answer period) events were 3 hours, and Rubio, Albright and Huckabee events were all about two hours. However, the time we invested was well worth the return. Rather than hearing sound­bites or watching carefully edited advertisements, my students got to hear these candidates discuss policies and answer questions, got to see how candidates physically presented themselves, and got to observe audience responses to the candidates.

The caucuses are chaotic and unpredictable, and so was our class. Students had the opportunity to reflect on the value of the Iowa Caucuses themselves, as a tool for helping parties nominate their candidates, just as national media was raising similar issues. Iowa is not at all racially representative of the US, and Iowa caucus participants are far older than the average voter. So why should Iowa get to vote first? And why does Iowa continue to use caucuses? Caucuses require that participants show up at a designated time and place, and that participants remain for up to two hours. Employers are not required to let employees have time off work, school activities (basketball games, for example) conflict with caucus timing, and caucus environments can be difficult for parents who bring young children. This all helps explain why caucus turnout is far lower than primary election turnouts, and also explain why caucus participants tend to be older, on average, than primary election voters. And yet, since 1972, Iowa caucus participants have started the presidential nomination process. Is this fair? Is this reasonable? Is this justifiable? How much longer will Iowa its privileged position in the US presidential election process? Iowans clearly benefits from this state of affairs. Examination of these themes pushed students to critically examine their Iowan positions of privilege.


*Parts of this essay were originally presented at the American Political Science Association (APSA) Teaching & Learning Conference (TLC), February 2016 in Portland Oregon.

Carly Hayden Foster is Associate Professor of Political Science at Luther College in Decorah Iowa. Dr. Foster’s research and teaching interests center on US law, policy, and politics, especially as they relate to gender and race.