ANAMOSA, Iowa ― Christine and Tito Cantu do not live in Iowa, but they’re here in the Strawberry Hill Elementary School cafeteria because this might be their best chance to see Pete Buttigieg up close.
The Cantus live in Rock Falls, Illinois, and some of the Democratic presidential candidates who are crisscrossing Iowa ahead of Monday’s caucuses might drop out of the race before Illinois holds its primary in March. And the candidates who remain will probably not be taking questions in tiny cafeterias.
“It’s so strange how the Iowa caucus works and now it will be six weeks before we get to vote,” Christine Cantu, 45, said in an interview. “We don’t even know who we’ll get to vote for.”
Buttigieg acknowledged as much during his events on Saturday, noting that Iowa caucusgoers get to put their “thumb on the scale” in the early stages of primary voting.
“What’s really struck me through this process is seeing how seriously Iowans take that responsibility that comes with the influence that you have,” Buttigieg said at Strawberry Hill Elementary. “You’re very mindful of the importance of really looking us over and kicking the tires and all the ideas that we’re bringing forward to you.”
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is controversial, as it privileges the interests of a state that is less diverse and more rural than the rest of the country as a whole and much less diverse than the Democratic Party.
What happens in the Iowa caucuses can have a huge outcome on the rest of the race, with a poor performance potentially killing a campaign. Joe Biden, for instance, dropped out of the Democratic primary in 2008 after garnering less than 1% of Iowa’s delegate count. Barack Obama’s surprise victory that year helped propel him to the White House.
Today, the former vice president and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are front-runners nationally, with Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) most in need of a strong showing here on Monday.
With such high stakes, some people come from out of state to try to influence the outcome. Barbara Nelson, a 60-year-old real estate agent from Hillsboro, Oregon, said she’s been canvassing for Buttigieg since Tuesday as part of Barnstormers for Pete, a grassroots canvassing group.
“I knocked on doors in five different towns,” Nelson said.
Other out-of-staters come just to get close to the candidates they admire. A packed rally in Sanders’ Iowa City field office on Saturday included a number of visitors from other Midwestern states. Krissy Haglund, a naturopathic doctor wearing a baseball hat that read “Doctors for Bernie,” and her husband Dan Wright, a database engineer, brought their two kids from Minneapolis. Hardcore Sanders supporters, they were headed to another one of his events some 90 minutes away in Newton and were also making time for an Andrew Yang rally.
“It’s fun to be here, where the candidates are making little stops and places where we can actually meet them,” Wright said.
And people really do get to meet candidates here. Voters from Missouri and Oklahoma greeted Biden at a Friday event in Fort Madison. John Nicks, a 67-year-old lawyer from Tulsa, said Biden thanked him for making the trip.
Olivia Ortiz came as part of a group of political science students from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, visiting events for Yang, Klobuchar, Warren, Buttigieg, Biden and even former Rep. Joe Walsh, who is hopelessly trying to wrest the GOP nomination from President Donald Trump. Ortiz, 20, called the experience exciting but also said it’s a little “odd” that Iowa goes first given its particular demographics.
“Iowans are white and that’s great, but I haven’t seen a lot of Hispanic people. I mean there are not a ton of Black people at any of these rallies,” Ortiz said at a Buttigieg rally in Des Moines on Sunday.
The Cantus got up early on Saturday morning in Rock Falls and made a two-hour drive across the state line to see Klobuchar in Bettendorf, then Warren in Cedar Rapids, then Buttigieg in Anamosa, before returning to Cedar Rapids to see Sanders that evening.
In the cafeteria in Anamosa, people could ask Buttigieg questions without needing a microphone, and the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor posed for selfies afterward. When candidates make their way to Illinois next month, Cantu figures they’ll hold events around Chicago that aren’t nearly as intimate.
“It would be nice if each state was important,” she said.