IOWA CITY – As the Democratic presidential primary season nears, populist candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are gaining traction as the establishment candidates fade into a pleasant background of low expectations.
On North Clinton Street, right across the street from the University of Iowa’s business building, a group of rogue Republicans has set up camp, flying a prominent “Donald Trump 2016: Make America Great Again” banner from the rooftop of its house. Questioned by Breitbart News, an undergraduate named Matt makes clear that Iowa City – long thought of as a left-wing haven within the Hawkeye State – has an affinity for Trump.
Trump’s campaign bus tours have helped spur the Trump Underground in this pivotal political city, which all but created the national political career of Barack Obama just eight years earlier. As Eastern Iowa’s newspaper “Gazette” blares a front-page headline about how Iowa workers’ wages have declined in recent years, so too do the savvy students gravitate toward Trump.
Hillary Clinton? She has no power here.
The Clinton campaign has set up shop in a low-rent unit on East College Street a block from the town’s Pedestrian Mall Center, in a block of low-rent units that houses a barbershop and once housed a psychic reading center. The organization is disorganized and paranoid. Upon entering their cramped, overcrowded office space, this Breitbart reporter sees a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton from the 1990’s. How fitting. The campaign staffers, on the verge of hyperventilation, are forced to give me the email address for Clinton Iowa spokeswoman Lily Adams, daughter of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, on a sticky Post-It note. How are their door-knocking efforts going, I ask.
“We’re having a lot of fun” the young woman says as tersely as possible, making clear that fun really isn’t part of the equation here for Clinton.
The Sanders camp, meanwhile, is thriving. Centrally located on a main Iowa City business strip, the campaign office has a cardboard cutout of Sanders greeting all visitors and an elaborate Volunteer whiteboard showing dozens of young Iowa Hawkeyes signing up to phone-bank and to door-knock for Bernie in three-hour shifts. According to conversations with Iowa City leftists, Sanders is doing just fine – and he’s going to win Iowa City by a wide margin over Clinton.
But the Trump effect cannot be ignored.
An Iowa sports legend, capable of swinging the vote in an entire statewide election with one endorsement, sits in a shadowy corner of the bar, his head bowed, begging not to be recognized for just one night in his long career. He sits with two younger men who safely guard the great man’s identity.
“What group do you think we’re in?” one of the men finally asks this reporter, referring to Republican vs. Democrat politics. I guess Republican. Needless to say, I guess correctly. The men are Donald Trump fans. And they don’t compromise.
Coming out of the Foxhead, the bar famously affiliated with the world-renowned Iowa Writers Workshop, another young student just wants to talk about Trump. He’s on everyone’s mind. And even here, in the most left-wing of environments, he is doing very, very well.
It was here, not eight years ago, that an unknown third-place darkhorse candidate named Barack Hussein Obama came out of nowhere to win the Iowa caucus and become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. It was here in Iowa City. When he won that caucus in January 2008, it was the college kids of Iowa City that greeted him as the victor.
And here we are, in the same city eight years later, watching Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders steal Hillary Clinton’s perpetually out-of-reach throne.
And here, all these years later, we take a collective shrug: What more could possibly go wrong?