My Iowa: Covering the Caucuses as a Native or a Newcomer

KELLEN BROWNING If you were trying to think of a city that feels like the polar opposite of San Francisco, Des Moines would be a pretty good bet.

When I learned in November that I had two weeks to pack up my life in the Bay Area and move to Iowa for the winter to report on the Iowa caucuses, I called up Sydney Ember, a colleague who drew this assignment four years ago, for advice. She reassured me that driving in the snow would be easy, and said she had almost died only three times on the icy roads during her time in Iowa covering the 2020 Democratic primary race.

Armed with that comforting knowledge — and some new coats — I took off for Des Moines. In just six short weeks, I’ve driven more than 3,400 miles in my rental car, attended rallies for all of the leading candidates and spoken with dozens of voters. But while I was moonlighting as an Iowan, one of my colleagues on staff is the real thing.

Anjali Huynh, a politics reporter who grew up in Iowa City, has watched all of us reporters try to become Iowa experts, and — I can only imagine — rolled her eyes at our inability to blend in with the locals. As I prepared to wrap up my stint here, I wanted to chat with a real Iowan about her state, and share some of what I have learned.

Here’s our conversation.

ANJALI HUYNH What was your reaction when you first heard that you were going to be sent to Des Moines, somewhere you haven’t been before?

KELLEN I have not spent time in the Midwest, so I was looking forward to it, but I also just had no idea what to expect. In my head I had visions of cornfields and flat terrain, a stark contrast to the slopes of San Francisco. When I first got out here, my first impression of downtown Des Moines was: “Wow, it’s so quiet. I guess people are just at home because it’s kind of cold out.” But Iowa is simply a much more sparsely populated state, and I soon came to realize that’s just how it was.

ANJALI How cold was it?

KELLEN It was like 40 degrees, which I now view as warm. But, I’m curious: What has it been like for you, who grew up in Iowa City, seeing people like me parachute in?

ANJALI It’s been very odd. Part of why I got into journalism was because of the caucuses. In 2016, the first event I ever attended was for Senator Bernie Sanders in my hometown, because I heard that Josh Hutcherson, the guy who plays Peeta in “The Hunger Games,” was going to campaign alongside him.

I was 14. I remember being in awe of how many people were there, all to see this guy from Vermont. That was the first time I realized the power that Iowa had in drawing all these candidates here.

So in 2020, ahead of the Democratic primary, I persuaded a local newsmagazine to let me follow the candidates. I went to the Iowa State Fair for them, and while covering the candidates, I remember seeing all the national journalists and the way they were talking about and ramming past fairgoers, and just feeling frustrated. I knew that if I made it to some sort of a national stage, I wanted to do it better, to talk about Iowans not just using tropes, but making sure I actually understood why they believed what they believed.

KELLEN That’s something I have tried to do by having the opportunity to be on the ground here for six weeks.

ANJALI Is there anything that surprised you about Iowa?

KELLEN I truly did not realize the whole “Iowa Nice” thing was real. Campaign operatives or strategists who have been doing this for a long time have asked me, “Oh, did you bring mittens? Do you need them?”

But Anjali, I wanted to ask what you’re expecting from the caucuses today. What do you make of the process in general?

ANJALI I’m still talking to a lot of voters who are undecided. I’ve been covering Vivek Ramaswamy over the last week, and I’ve encountered so many people at his events who say they’re between him and any number of other candidates. Many Iowans wait until the last second to decide whom they’re going to support, so those final pitches do matter.

There are a lot of issues with the caucuses; the fact that they’re at a very set time, on a certain day, in person, does make them inaccessible to some people.

But there’s a certain beauty about seeing the process unfold, seeing neighbors who really value this process come together and convince one another to support a particular candidate. Iowa has a more diverse array of perspectives than it gets credit for — there aren’t just farmers here — and you can especially see that during the caucuses.

KELLEN My biggest takeaway is that I’ve really enjoyed talking to voters face-to-face who take this very seriously and take their civic responsibility very seriously. And they’re willing to talk to the media.

I was speaking with these two couples in Sioux Center the other day after a Trump rally, and they said: “You know, we don’t really like The New York Times very much. We don’t trust it.” We had a 20-minute conversation. I was explaining where the media was coming from: We report the truth. Our stories are accurate. And they said, essentially, “The media has lost the trust of people” and they’re relying more on what they see around them, and on alternative news sources, like Tucker Carlson.

There’s this divide now in the country about what is factual, and that makes it very hard to get through to people. But I appreciate that we were able to talk face-to-face about this rather than through a screen.

ANJALI Do you have any funny moments from the trail?

KELLEN The funniest moment for me was a question from a 10-year-old girl from Nebraska who asked Vivek Ramaswamy, if he became president, whether he would ask China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for a giant panda for her zoo. And he said he would try.

ANJALI What about general Iowa highlights?

KELLEN Going for runs around Gray’s Lake in Des Moines. There are some incredible sunsets in Iowa. There are several great bridges in Des Moines that light up at night. Some of the food has been really good.

A bridge over Gray’s Lake in Des Moines, where Kellen Browning went on runs during his stint in Iowa.Credit…Kellen Browning/The New York Times

Even when campaign events took me to rural parts of the state, I found them charming. The Fruited Plain Café in downtown Sioux Center, for instance, is a cozy place to take refuge from the cold. And at one point, I accidentally drove into Nebraska. Anjali, what’s your favorite place in Iowa that’s not Iowa City?

ANJALI Dubuque in the fall is beautiful. Last time I went, they had a winter market going on.

KELLEN I’ll have to come back at a time when it’s not negative 18 degrees outside.

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