Everywhere In Between: Episode 6: Politics


MORGAN: The dinner table has gotten tense. Or maybe it’s been this way for a while, but it seems like it’s now near impossible to keep politics out of the conversation.

So instead of remembering our manners, today we’re going to talk politics—the trends, the shifts, and just exactly what is going on.

Nick McGlynn is starting us off by exploring how we can start to talk about it all in at least a somewhat civilized way.

NICK: We live in a dichotomous political world nowadays. It’s left or right. Blue or red. According to the Pew Research Center, from 1994 to 2014, not only has there been a rise in the rigidness of partisan ideals among the general population, but there has also been a spike in antipathy with conservatives to liberals, and liberals to conservatives. With the growing gap between partisan principles and the two parties seemingly at ideological warfare with each other, how can we expect to achieve civil discourse in political discussion and debate?

Let’s zone in on a specific realm where political conversations happen on a regular basis: college campuses.

CAUFIELD (0:40): It’s a heightened political environment right now, it’s a polarized political environment right now, and when you combine that with people who, you know, students who are coming out of homes where they’ve often only really been exposed to one set of political ideas, it can be hard to foster really meaningful dialogue sometimes.

That’s Rachel Caufield, a political scientist and a member of the political visitor team at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her team takes on the arduous task of organizing political events on a campus in Iowa, where political action is, as we speak, happening fast and intensely.

CAUFIELD (1:14): College campuses are kind of a unique political climate in of themselves, and I don’t think that’s completely unique to this time and place. But I will say that I think Drake, because we are in the center of the political universe for the next eleven months, it can give you a greater sense of direct involvement and it can empower you to see that you do have the ability to affect change in the process.

Along with colleges, especially Drake, being in a hyper political climate, Caufield also recognizes that the entire country is dividing more and more by the year.

CAUFIELD (1:39): We certainly haven’t seen this much division in, depending on which political scientist you talk about, they would say either 50 years or 100 years, 125 years, so it really depends on who you talk to, but, you know, yeah there is something unique about the period of time we are living in. I don’t know how we get out of it.

Randy Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, also sees a similar pattern in the way people on campus discuss politics. Even if Nebraska isn’t as a high-stakes battleground state as Iowa is, however, Adkins pushes the student body to bring in multiple perspectives on campus with one main common denominator: civility.

ADKINS (2:37): The key to the whole thing is that you want to bring in, you know, decent people who can engage students about getting involved in civic life, public service in a positive way. That’s the thing that’s key to me.

Incivility in politics is not new to those who follow it, but the effects go much deeper than just debate. According to a study done at Michigan State, congresspeople have been cosponsoring bills with others across the aisle less over time, down to just about 200 bills total out of the thousands that are introduced each year. Just because there is no clear answer, however, doesn’t mean that certain measures have ceased to be implemented to remedy the polarization. There are meaningful steps being made in the name of achieving civil discourse.

CAUFIELD (3:05): There’s a subset of people, however, who are so entrenched in their own ideological bubbles, and increasingly we are living with, working with, socializing with only with people who agree with us, right? And so we might not even know that we are in an ideological bubble, but we’re in an ideological bubble, right? Social media exacerbates this, polarized TV media exacerbates this, right, you’re either MSNBC, or FOX, or CNN. Like we’ve identified these groupings, our loyalties within those groupings are absolutely essential in defining virtually every part of our lives right now

This is where the artform of facilitating public political events is crucial to carrying that important conversation; students on college campuses are exposed to different points of view to fend off that ideological bubble and create a sense of understanding on both sides.

CAUFIELD (4:01): To me, a good political event is one where: a, students will be present, right? Like, making sure it is something that will allow students an opportunity to be there to participate actively in the event if they choose to do so, but then also that it will be an environment where people are respectful to one another and there’s a certain amount of gravitas that will represent the university well, and that will allow for respectful dialogue even if we disagree.

ADKINS (4:37): In reality, you can’t really put on something that’s non-partisan, because everybody’s got some kind of party affiliation. There’s very few people who are truly non-partisan. So, I think what works better is if we try to be bipartisan, and you have opportunities for liberal and conservatives to speak on campus.

Of course, no one event will change the course of how political debate is made in this country. But based on student response, Caufield and Adkins see progress, or at least a desire to break from the norm.

CAUFIELD (5:11): The one thing I can say, having done a lot of these events, some of which are contentious, some of which are not, but every single time I question whether Drake students will come through, they always exceed my expectations.

I was really fascinated by the number of students who asked for tickets to the Kamala Harris event. Democrats, republicans, independents, grad students, faculty, staff, some of who I know are people who are interested in supporting her, many of who I don’t know at all, but some who I know don’t support her and will never support her, but the fact that they wanted to go anyway is really important.

ADKINS (5:52): My hope is that, as a professor, and as a leader in our administration at UNO, that what we are doing is we are sort of crystalizing and teaching and educating the next generation of politicians. And that’s where it starts, you know? I may not have an effect on current representatives in Congress that represent my district, my state, your state, your home state, whatever, I may not have an effect on them, but the students who are (college) aged, can we talk to them, and can we engage them in civil discourse and show them what that’s like, so that when they move into their political life, it becomes very common for them.

In this culture of dogmatic politics and partisan binaries, people just like Rachel and Randy are doing their best to teach the importance of a rich, diverse, political experience in college. Whether you agree with someone’s politics is immaterial; everyone deserves civil treatment, and the more we are able to appeal to the humanity in one another, the closer we will be to a more United people.

MORGAN: As much as we can work toward civil discourse, we can’t ignore the increasing gap across parties.

Josh Cook is here to talk about what it looks like when the left continues to steer left.

JOSH: Comparing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election platform to candidates in the Democratic field for the 2020 election is like night and day. Bernie’s campaign, which drew the most support of any challenger to Hillary, used the motto “the revolution.” His ideas of Medicare for all, affordable college, forgiving student debt and criminal justice reform were quite ambitious compared to Clinton, but now seem to be the norm for Democrats running for office.

After Donald Trump redefined the Republican party’s platform on his path to office, is this move further left from the Democrats a reaction to Trump’s victory and subsequent presidency?

BRIANNE [2:12]: I think more than a response to Trump, and it’s a response to the fact that Bernie did so well and that those policies that he was promoting in 2016 really did resonate in a way that was broad. And so now I think you’re seeing a lot of democrats move to embrace that.

JOSH: That’s Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register, looking at the diversity of the 2020 democratic field compared to what was really a two-horse race in 2016.

BRIANNE [2:32]: And you’ve got people like Senator Warren who was also talking about a lot of these things but didn’t run in 2016 and so now you’ve kind of got Bernie’s setting the standard on the left as far as, you know, a really progressive push. And then shades of that all the way through. This really broad really diverse candidate pool. So, you’ve got Medicare for all in its truest form um sponsored by Senator Sanders, but then also got people saying, well this is how I would approach it. This is the ultimate goal is universal coverage and access that I would get to it a little bit differently. And to now you’re seeing Democrats kind of, you know, take that as the basis and then say, you know, maybe it’s a little too much for me and I would phase it out, phrase it in this way.

JOSH: But while these “leading” candidates have been outlining a more progressive vision, there are still more moderate candidates running for the Democratic nomination creating their own, more centrist, policy positions.

BRIANNE [3:20]: Or you know, some people distinguishing themselves by saying, I’m not for Medicare for all at all. You know, you’ve got John Hickenlooper from Colorado on the trail saying, you know, I don’t support this policy and they’re just languishing themselves that way. So, I think while it’s true that a lot of the, you know, quote unquote leaders of the pack right now, these kind of capture your Democrats are tending to be more or left. There is still this really broad range and we’re seeing a lot of creation and the way that they’re approaching these progressive policies simply by the sheer number of candidates that we have.

JOSH: With Hickenlooper being one of the few Democratic candidates not on the Medicare-for-all train, the issue has clearly been a point of emphasis for everyone else on the campaign trail – though the conversation seems to be part of a more progressive vision than just two years ago in the 2018 midterm elections.

BRIANNE [4:25]: healthcare is one of the big drivers of democratic enthusiasm. Definitely true. The midterms. And now again, going into 2020, you know, and the, the midterms though it was a little bit different. It was about protecting pre-existing conditions, protecting the affordable care act. You know, saying Republicans are going to take away all of this progress that we have. And um, you know, I think it was a fairly moderate approach to say, yeah, we, we support all of these things and we don’t want to let Republicans take it away. And so now going into 2020, it’s kind of a different conversation. I mean, it’s an extension of that conversation, right? But it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s still driving a lot of enthusiasm. And I think, you know, this idea of universal health coverage, universal access is something that a lot of people are really rallying behind saying this is our ultimate goal. And, um, you know, it’s, it’s something that we want to strive to be.

JOSH: But healthcare isn’t the only issue driving conversations on the left. Environmental challenges appear to be more prominent than four years ago as well – again with most democratic candidates posing a more progressive vision of energy production and consumption.

BRIANNE [5:18]: But I think you’re also seeing that with issues like climate change and the green new deal. Um, our polling has showed that there’s a lot of support for things like the green new deal. But I think people almost use that as a shorthand for bold, progressive action on climate change. I don’t think, you know, you would talk to the average voter and they know what’s specifically outlined in the green new deal that they did know that this is an existential threat and they want a policy that matches that level of, um, necessity.

JOSH: With candidates becoming more aligned on a spread of issues, as voters seem to be doing; what will be the influential factors that impact caucus votes? Name recognition has been long-emphasized in presidential races, but Sanders nearly overcame that challenge in 2016 – narrowly losing the nomination. Pfannenstiel suggests it could come down to actual policy proposals and who can best take advantage of their day in the sun.

BRIANNE [8:17]: I guess I would say it’s more than just, “I know Joe Biden’s name, he’s got a decade long career in politics and I know who he is. I know what he stands for. I’m comfortable with that.” So, I think there’s a lot of that, um, that is supporting Joe Biden in the polls right now. And, you know, I think like we saw with Bernie Sanders maybe when he gets it and that dropped off just a little bit because he’s going to have to start talking about things in the news. You know, right now he’s relying on his legacy and what people already know about him. Um, so I, I look back to the 2015 caucus cycle when we had, you know, 16, 17 republicans running and, in that field, in the polls, everybody had his day so to speak. You know, everybody had their moment in the sand where they kind of rose and they were the flavor of the month and then they received a little bit and that someone else has their turn. And so, you know, I’m well beyond making predictions. I think that’s not a valuable use of time, but, um, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that shape up again, this cycle where everybody kind of has, has a moment, has their thing, and it’s about who can capture that and turn it into long-term support.

JOSH: Getting that time in the spotlight is important – and many complained that Trump was handed a successful campaign in 2016 because of the non-stop coverage he received. But how can candidates take advantage of their big moments? A few different candidates have already seen big leaps in popularity this year – Texan candidate Beto O’Rourke was leading polling for a week or so before tailing off, and now former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeig is riding a strong wave – but how do they capitalize and ride that wave to a nomination?

BRIANNE [9:28]: So, we’re seeing Pete Buttigeig, with his moment right now. And is that going to be sustainable? You know, I was talking with a former democratic operative the other day who said, you know, there’s not value in having a thousand people turn up to a rally in Iowa unless you’re collecting their names and their emails and their phone numbers. And that takes staff that takes volunteers and people and Buttigieg doesn’t have That yet, you know, you can drive a thousand people to a rally, but what matters is following up with those people and making sure that they’re staying connected with your campaign from now through the next 10 months all the way to caucus day. And so, if you’re not doing that, um, you know, you’re, you’re missing out. You may not be capitalizing in on this moment.

JOSH: A big part of building that potential-voter network is traveling in battleground states to make memorable impacts on would-be-caucus goers. Many Midwest states fall into this category, especially Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucus. But what makes traveling to, and around, these battleground states so key for gaining support?

BRIANNE [11:49]: Iowans are spoiled in a lot of ways because they, they get to do that. But I’ll tell you, I think covering these people in person is very different than seeing them on TV or you know, catching a couple of sound bites. I see now like spending an hour and a half in a room with somebody answering questions and seeing how they engage with people. You know, people getting to go through the photo line to shake their hands and ask a question and take their picture. You know, you really do get a sense of people in person that it’s hard to get in another way. And I think Iowa, you know, Iowa caucus goers really value that interaction. And so, with as many people as there are, those interactions are going to matter even more. You know, because they’re going to have to stand out. They’re going to have to stand out in caucus stories, memories. They’re going to remember that Cory booker followed up and sent an email to, you know, the local activists, like they’re going to remember those one on one interactions.

JOSH: So whether candidates are talking about the revolution, medicare-for-all, or the green new deal, those conversations are most effective when paired with some kind of personal touch or one on one connection. As the left leans further left, that’s what will make candidates stand out.

MORGAN: So political candidates, no matter who they are, are seeing the benefits of getting personal.

Katie O’Keefe spoke with political experts to learn more about political strategies that are capitalizing on one-on-one connections.

O’KEEFE: In today’s society, it seems that Americans can only agree on one thing—that we are deeply polarized on the political scale. The PRRI, short for Public Religion Research Institute is a nonpartisan organization focused on conducting research on the spectrums of religion, culture, and public policy. They stated that “91 percent of people in a survey believe the country is divided over politics, ranking it higher than those who believe our country is divided on issues such as race, religion, and ethnicity.” This separation has not only caused issues when passing legislation, but has also created tensions between co-workers, friends, and family members. And with the 2020 Presidential cycle in its early stages, many are looking to the candidates and their campaigns in hopes of reducing this dividing gap.

Here in the Midwest, politicians use specific campaign strategies to help combat this divide and bridge the gap between political figures and their voters. Chris Hall, Representative from Sioux City, Iowa (House District 13) spoke with us on his experience with conducting a campaign.

HALL [3:53]: I think in my experience people really want someone they can trust, they want someone who listens, and generally (at least in my district) they more interested in the person than they are in the person’s political party. There are a lot of voters in my district who think it’s more important for me to come by, knock on their door and say “hello” than they think it is for me to be a democrat or republican.”

O’KEEFE: This campaign style is known as retail campaigning—a strategy that focuses on the face-to-face interaction with voters rather than engaging in large masses. Many politicians have adapted this tactic on the local, state, and even national scale. And with a confirmed 22 candidates on the Democratic side, presidential hopefuls are leaning towards this method to win over Iowa and the rest of the Midwest.

HALL [12:18]: “Swing states and bellwether states really have a neat impact on the direction of national politics, but there’s also something unique about the type of style of campaign we have here. Umm…Virginia, Colorado, Florida, Iowa- there’s a limited number of states where there’s “old school campaigns” where people come by on foot, they knock doors, they make phone calls, and you actually have a chance to meet the candidate.”

O’KEEFE: One of the biggest advantages to running a “retail campaign” is the candidate and campaign staff gets to personally interact with voters, conveying their emotions, ideas, and enthusiasm one-on-one. Retail-style campaigns can be practiced across the country, but is more commonly utilized in some states, specifically within the Midwest.

HALL [12:36]: Virgina, Colorado, Florida, and Iowa I think those states (who practice retail campaigning) take it seriously and they have I think some of the coolest forms of politics because it’s old school and our own expectations of what a candidate brings to the table and how they campaign. I think that in itself retail campaigning is great because it’s not just throwing money at a campaign or putting up commercials on TV and sending out glossy mailers, it’s the expectations of face time and communication between two people, even if they are staff. You still have the chance to ask questions, and hopefully get a response, that’s something that really important to politics itself.”

O’KEEFE: On the other side of the spectrum is wholesale campaigning. This method focuses on television and radio advertisements in addition to large speaking engagements, like political rallies.

Someone who has seen retail and wholesale campaigning come to life is Ben Flocke. Flocke has been working in the political realm since 2001 when he canvassed for the 2002 Harkin and Vilsack campaigns. Throughout Flocke’s career, he has been exposed to both campaign styles; wholesale and retail. And while each strategy is successful in their own way, Flocke believes Iowa’s significance to the political industry gives the state an opportunity to showcase their unique political atmosphere.

FLOCKE [4:20] “Iowa is well known as a retail politics state because of the caucuses – the spotlight that gets shown on our political environment every four years really showcases the kind of politics you have to wage and the kind of politics you have to run in states like Iowa.”

O’KEEFE: And while conducting a retail-style campaign can have its benefits, those personal connections with voters require extra work from campaign staff members.

FLOCKE [6:35]:  “If you’re doing a heavily retail type of campaign, you just have a larger field staff. You’ve got more people because there’s simply more work to do because it’s heavily grassroots oriented and organizationally based.”

O’KEEFE: But the hard work put out by campaign members and field staff is sometimes the difference for voters as they get the opportunity to meet with candidates and express their issues, ask questions, and get to know the political figure.

FLOCKE [5:31]: “Well I think you get a realer…if that’s even a word…version of the issues that are facing people everyday when you do retail politics. You’re [a politician] talking to people and you’re hearing that expression, their challenges of their daily lives from their own mouths. You don’t get that when you’re doing wholesale politics as much because you’re probably giving a speech to a big crowd based on talking points that you developed from polling and research.”

O’KEEFE: As presidential hopefuls and other political candidates hit the ground running, Iowa and the Midwest will continue to pay attention to their strategies in hopes of winning over America’s heartland for the 2020 election.

Everywhere In Between graphic by Mia Tirado.