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The Iowans Who Make The Caucuses Happen Behind The Scenes


The presidential candidates are far from the only people working hard in Iowa. Tonight's caucuses are a complicated process more than a year in the making. So were the campaigns, with lots of people working hard behind the scenes. Well, we wanted to meet some of the Iowans who keep the caucus machine humming. So NPR's Sam Gringlas sent us this postcard.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: On the dining room of Vanessa Phelan's two-story Tudor in Des Moines, there's a giant cardboard box stuffed with caucus packets. Also...

VANESSA PHELAN: Painter's tape for people to hang signs. We have to put in notepads for us to take notes.

GRINGLAS: Phelan is a first-time precinct chair. That means she's in charge of making sure her caucus site runs smoothly for everyone. And she's been planning for months.

PHELAN: It's been a lot of fun up until, like, the past week. And then it's just been like, oh, my God (laughter).

GRINGLAS: Phelan caucused for the first time back in 2016 with her daughter Zoe in tow. She had a great experience, and so this time, she signed up to volunteer.

PHELAN: Zoe was less than 1, and she was in her jammies 'cause it was way past bedtime. And it's really a unique experience to be able to talk with your neighbors about what issues you care about.

GRINGLAS: Phelan's caucus materials, along with the other 25,000 packets for Polk County, were printed a few minutes away at the I Work & Play print shop. Owner John Bartlet's shop is a go-to spot for campaigns looking to make buttons, banners, barn signs, flyers. The showroom wall is covered with campaign gear.

JOHN BARTLET: Everything that's right here is - I've got a nondisclosure on. You know, we're printing for five still-viable candidates that are running.

GRINGLAS: Lately, Bartlet says he's been keeping campaign hours.

BARTLET: It's not unheard of that I'll get a text from a campaign at, you know, 9:30 at night or 6:30 in the morning. So - oh, we need these flyers for this event tomorrow. Can you take care of it? Of course.

GRINGLAS: Across town, Suzette Jensen's also been busy.

SUZETTE JENSEN: I hosted a Beto O'Rourke house party. I did a house party for Governor Bullock of Montana. Both he and Beto O'Rourke dropped out of the race.

GRINGLAS: Now she's been hosting out-of-town Amy Klobuchar staffers at her home, though Jensen herself is going to caucus for Elizabeth Warren.

House guest Nora Raube is 22, and Erin McGrath is 23.

NORA RAUBE: We've been so grateful for this beautiful house that Suzette's provided us with. We - like, I cannot tell her how much we love it.

ERIN MCGRATH: I think I was really nervous moving to Iowa. And I think I got here. I immediately felt that energy.

JENSEN: It is just a joy to meet young women, young men who've come from out of state. And they're pouring their hearts out to work for a candidate. They work long hours. And I think it is so wonderful that they're getting these experiences.

GRINGLAS: Another unique experience - covering the caucuses for the student newspaper at the University of Iowa.

SARAH WATSON: I mean, we are in the middle of a community of first-time caucusgoers. We have an insider's scoop on what young people are thinking.

GRINGLAS: That's Daily Iowan managing editor Sarah Watson.

WATSON: When you step back and you think about, wow, I just had a one-on-one with Elizabeth Warren, or I just covered Cory Booker on one of his last campaign stops, it really puts into perspective, kind of, our position here as student journalists.

GRINGLAS: Tonight, Watson is headed to cover Joe Biden's caucus night party. When it's all over, Biden and the other candidates will beeline for New Hampshire. Sarah Watson will get back to her junior year.

Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.