DUBUQUE, Iowa — Virtually every Iowan who spoke to Colorado Politics during John Hickenlooper's swing through the state Friday and Saturday said he or she intends to participate in the Feb. 3, 2020, caucus, and used their meet-and-greets with the Coloradan Hickenlooper to evaluate the candidate.
Most said they are uncommitted to a candidate and waiting to see more before making a choice.
The former two-term governor, Denver mayor and brewpub owner met with hundreds of Iowans in six cities, in events held at brewpubs (naturally), private homes and small businesses.
He drew strong crowds in every stop, from a brewery in Des Moines to a title company in Charles City, population 7,200, to house parties in Dubuque and Clinton and a noisy brewpub in Cedar Rapids.
A strong crowd, by the way, means that a sizable living room in a large 1916 Craftsman home in Dubuque is so full that people are packed into every corner, from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen. In Charles City, it meant a standing-room audience in the backroom of a small business while a torrential rain storm mixed with snow and high winds is raging outside. The weather doesn't dissuade Iowans.
On Tuesday, the RSVP's on Facebook for the Charles City event showed eight people had signed up. On Saturday, at least six times that showed up. That was repeated all over the state. No matter how many signed up prior to the event, the number who attended was at least double.
That's how Iowans getting ready for the caucus meet candidates: in their homes and businesses, not in large auditoriums.
So how do Iowans — and the mostly Democrats who attended the Hickenlooper events — view their role in national politics? And why does their first-in-the-nation caucus matter to them?
It's something like this: If you see a presidential candidate in a living room in Colorado, it's likely because you got an invite to a big fundraiser and you've got a bank account that the candidate is interested in.
In Iowa, a presidential candidate in a living room full of voters of all ages and income levels is not only not unusual, it's expected.
Steve Drahozal is chair of the Dubuque County Democratic party, re-elected the same day Hickenlooper showed up in his city. He attended the governor's meet-and-greet at the home of local attorney Jack Wertzberger, along with more than 60 fellow Democrats.
House parties -- and Hickenlooper visited two on Saturday -- give voters the chance to feel more of a connection to a candidate, Drahozal said. That, in turn, translates into loyalty down the road.
As county party chair, he will not take a position on which candidate he intends to support, he said.
But as to the caucus, "Iowans expect to meet all the candidates," Drahozal said. "We expect face time with them," such as through house parties and other small, intimate gatherings that allow voters to directly ask questions, as Iowans and as neighbors, he said.
"We're spoiled" by the system, Drahozal said with a smile.
The caucus system is democracy at its purest form, he added. "It's good for the country, too. It's harder to be caustic or dismissive [with a candidate] when you're in the same room."
"If people had more conversations in living rooms rather than on Facebook, we'd get a lot more done," Drahozal added.
Drahozal is a lifelong Iowan and caucus-goer. His wife, Allison, is not. She's a native of Louisiana. Her first Iowa caucus was an eye-opener, she told Colorado Politics. In Louisiana, you just pulled a lever, she said; in Iowa, you "debate, listen and decide. You witness democracy in action."
Being first in the nation also sets a tone, Allison Drahozal said: "You get to put your stamp" on the whole process.
Even those who don't live in Iowa came to the house party in Dubuque, just for the chance to watch the beginning of the caucus process.
Devyn Shea is a junior in high school in Platteville, Wisconsin, just 20 miles away. He still won't be old enough to vote when the 2020 general election takes place, but he's already intensely interested in politics, and he talked his dad, Andy, into going to Dubuque.
Devyn has staked out health care as an issue he's interested in, and wanting to hear the candidates' ideas.
Is politics in his future? He's interested in majoring in political science and starts college visits this week. And maybe there's a campaign not too far in his future.
Hickenlooper received a warm and enthusiastic reception from Iowans in the cities, towns and living rooms he visited throughout this last swing. But that hasn't yet translated into support — the most recent polls, despite several visits to the state, still show the governor in the low single digits, if he registers at all.
A clear sign that Hickenlooper has a long way to go in Iowa was hanging on the living room walls in the home of Wertzberger, host of the Dubuque house party, who attendees say is very well-connected politically.
As Hickenlooper stood in the middle of Wertzberger's living room, the living room walls were covered with pictures, including several with Wertzberg and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering his own presidential run in 2020.