Sarah Bowman and her husband have participated in the Iowa caucuses for years, and she’s made a tradition of bringing her children, now ages 8 to 18, to witness a slice of American democracy.
They’re planning to do it again tonight, that is, to slog through the remnants of a blizzard and weather record-low temperatures to caucus as a family at an elementary school in Waukee, Iowa, west of Des Moines.
“We ran the snowblower,” she said. “It’s -20 windchill, but we’ll all be there!”
That won’t be the case for Julia L. of Des Moines, whose three children are all under the age of 3, and who won’t be participating in the caucuses. Finding someone she trusts and who wouldn’t be kept from voting themselves to watch her three young children during the trickiest part of the day, dinner and bedtime, is a tall order. Bringing the baby and toddlers along would be hard on the entire family, especially given the weather conditions expected Monday night.
“There is still a lot of shoveling to do and with the dangerous cold, I think it’s unlikely I will go at this point,” said the Iowa Republican, who spoke on the condition her last name not be published to protect her family’s privacy.
Monday’s Iowa caucuses will require that voters brave the bitter cold and ice to gather at their local caucus precinct at 7 p.m. CT, with no option to participate remotely or by mail. For Iowans with caregiving duties — who are more likely to be women — or who have a disability, this system has long created an outsize barrier to participation. The dangerous weather conditions now facing the state, and likely to yield the coldest caucuses in history, illustrate how that additional burden can easily compound, icing out vulnerable voters.
Iowa voters who do make it out to their caucus sites Monday could send a strong message to the country about how much control former President Donald Trump holds over the GOP, and which of the two leading alternatives — Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis — has the best chance at creating a coalition that can rival Trump’s front-runner status.
Who participates in the caucus — and who is excluded as a result of the process — will impact the outcome in the first-in-the-nation state. As they work now, participation in the caucuses can be a challenge for anyone who can’t physically show up to a designated site, at a specific time, in the middle of winter, and participate in the process in English.
The final polls out of Iowa show Trump has a large lead over the rest of the field, with support right around 50 percent. Haley, the only woman in the field who is likely to make history for Republican women Monday night, has overtaken DeSantis for a second-place finish.
The final Emerson College Polling Iowa survey released Sunday shows Trump has the support of 54 percent of women voters in Iowa, followed by Haley at 20 percent and DeSantis at 16 percent. While Trump’s lead among women in Iowa is significant, the share of Iowa women who are able to participate could have an impact on the close race for second place. A third-place finish for DeSantis could mark the end of his campaign as he trails in the polls in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the following primary contests.
All three candidates over the weekend urged their supporters to brave the weather on caucus night as observers suggest caucus turnout — historically a small fraction of eligible voters in the state — could fall below 120,000 voters in a state of nearly 600,000 active Republican voters and a population of 3.18 million people.
“This is a long-standing criticism of the caucus system, particularly a caucus that’s held in January in the Midwest where it’s often snowing or frigid or both. You have to make a commitment to spending time at night doing that,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, who has spent years studying women’s political participation.
“The charm is the idea that you get people in a community, having conversations and discussions and debating their candidates. I think that in this day and age, it’s really turned into something that feels antiquated and limiting in terms of who can actually participate,” Walsh added.
Outside of people with caregiving responsibilities, the caucuses can be a challenge for people with physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities. Tricia Crain, the executive director of the Arc of Story County, which serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Ames, Iowa, and the surrounding area, said that in previous years, the Republican caucus did some outreach to people with disabilities and their families. In 2016, there was a page on the caucus website and an email address people could send accommodation requests to. This year, that page doesn’t exist.
Nicole Grundmeier, a Des Moines-based reporter, started looking into access issues among moms of young children at the caucuses in 2015, when she became a mother herself. Growing up, she said, participation in the caucuses felt reserved for those who were extremely politically active. Participation has since increased, including among women, bringing into sharper focus challenges for families with young children.
“I heard moms saying, ‘Hey, I want to caucus. What am I going to do for child care?’ I’m sure there are some families where the men did figure it out. But more often than not, that burden fell on the women,” Grundmeier said.
The caucuses go late, a challenge for children who tend to have earlier bedtimes. They’re also held in the middle of the respiratory illness season, which means children are more likely to be sick. Grundmeier said some families bring their children to the caucuses, but how feasible that is varies family to family.
An Iowa Republican Party spokesperson confirmed to The 19th that children are welcomed at the caucuses, but didn’t answer a question about whether any of the caucus sites offer any accommodations for children, parents who are nursing or people with disabilities.
“Children are allowed to join their parents during caucuses, reflective of the caucus being a century-old tradition of Iowans gathering in their communities to discuss and conduct party business,” the spokesperson, Kush Desai said in a statement.
Suzan Stewart, who leads a regional chapter for the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, told The 19th that the caucuses are a “very child-friendly event” and that she herself often brought her children to caucuses when they were young.
“It’s not easy, but it’s not hard either,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are happy to watch your kids as they run around or read or whatever.”
Grundmeier, who has reported on and attended caucuses on both sides of the aisle, said the events tend to be unpredictable and overstimulating, a reality that can impact every family differently.
“I have some friends whose children are on the autism spectrum and taking them to such a bright, loud and boisterous place is just not realistic,” she said. “I have other friends whose children are a little bit older and who are really like nerding out over the political process and enjoy it.”
For Julia L. and her husband, bringing three children under the age of 3 to caucus was never an option.
“For normal elections, I can just go early to the courthouse, that’s worked out really well for me,” she said. “The caucuses go very late. We definitely can’t both go with the kids. It’ll just be too much for them, and they’ll be a distraction to us too, and everyone else. They won’t have fun, and it’ll be miserable for everyone.”
The Iowa mom said she wonders if a virtual option or on-site child care could help other parents like herself take part in this democratic process. “It is kind of frustrating that it’s not something that I can really participate in easily,” she said.
Grundmeier experienced first hand the limitations of the caucus after her daughter was born. During the 2016 caucuses, she was four weeks postpartum with her daughter, and was unable to participate. Her daughter had been hospitalized with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) just days prior, and Grundmeier was receiving care for a blood clot in her leg related to her daughter’s birth.
“I wanted to caucus that year. But here I am with a four-week-old, not sleeping and on blood thinners,” she said.
For Bowman, who previously worked in politics, bringing children has been necessary and possible. In 2008, when her husband was overseas serving in Iraq, and Bowman was a local Republican Party official, family members helped watch her young son. Since that caucus, her children have been a part of the process.
“They just kind of roll with it. We just kind of expect it of them and they understand, even at a little age, how important Iowa is to the whole process,” she said.
Asked who she intends to support, Bowman said she hopes to caucus for Haley. “I think we need a mom in the office. Because moms get things done.”
Reporter Sara Luterman contributed to this report.