Downtown Des Moines, Iowa
Credit: iStock

If you are a Democrat looking for a mental boost, forget the sunny Caribbean this winter. Buy yourself a ticket to Iowa.

One year from the general election—and three months from the first-in-the-nation caucuses—Iowans are mulling their choices with an energy and sense of purpose that is uplifting. I cannot claim to read the tea leaves better than any poll watcher who (incorrectly) claims that he or she can. Polls fell off my reading list after November 8, 2016. But fresh from the streets of West Des Moines, where I spent the last weekend, I can assure you that the people of Iowa are taking this election seriously.

Admittedly, I didn’t think much about Iowans in prior presidential races; so I’m late to appreciate the palpable energy they generate from their perch in the first voting state. But now that I’ve witnessed first-hand how approachable and engaged the state’s Democratic caucus-goers are, coupled with the enormous influence they wield, I would be remiss if I didn’t make two calls to action to dejected Democrats. First, if you care deeply about the democratic process, get yourself to Iowa before February 3, 2020. Participate in the process. Second, use the experience to jumpstart yourself for the remainder of the campaign season.

Iowa had been on my to-do list all year, with those two principles at the forefront of my mind. I decided to attend the famous Iowa Liberty & Justice (L&J) Dinner, formerly the Jefferson-Jackson dinner last Friday. This event is a landmark of the primary season. In a sense, it’s like the Super Bowl of early political events.

Before the dinner, each candidate held their own rallies. More than 1000 supporters showed up for Kamala Harris’s (Full disclosure: I am a Kamala Harris supporter and fundraiser.). They partook in an indoor pep rally with live music, cornhole, an Isiserettes step team and drumline (the same group that appeared with Barack Obama in Iowa before 2007). There were also energizing speeches from Harris herself and key Iowa supporters. The room reverberated with a cacophony of cheers from people of every age, color, religion, and sexual orientation, you name it. For anyone peering in, there was no question that the makeup of the room reflected the beauty and diversity of America.

After the rallies, the candidates and their supporters marched over to the Wells Fargo Arena, with a stage set up around dining tables with hundreds of Democrats. While the guests enjoyed a seated dinner, each candidate had supporters decked out in signs and swag in designated bleacher sections nearby. It was clear that the 2020 hopefuls with the largest and most spirited sections were Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg.

Unlike the frustrating debate formats, this event gave Democrats a chance to speak at length about policy ideas and proposals. Overall, all of the candidates who spoke that night reflected the values that should guide any president. Any of them would undoubtedly serve as an enormous improvement over what we’ve got now. The evening left the Democratic audience reinvigorated and inspired. Perhaps most importantly, we left with an optimistic outlook for the future of our country. In other words, it was its own form of Democratic medicine.

While in Iowa, many of us also used the opportunity to hit the pavement. A brisk, sunny Saturday afternoon in West Des Moines found me knocking on doors with a newly transplanted 23-year old Harris organizer in a white, middle-class neighborhood. When we asked voters if they planned to caucus, they overwhelmingly told us they would, with just a few exceptions.

In some cases, we witnessed divided households: one woman’s husband was for Kamala, while she was committed to Pete. Another woman greeted us and chatted for 10 minutes about how her mind is open and she’s considering a number of the options. Another stepped outside for five minutes while his wife prepared dinner. He revealed that his family has not decided whom to caucus for, or whether both would caucus at all because they had small children. Another grandma spoke about her teacher daughter, her health care concerns, and her undecided status. She specifically expressed a desire to caucus for a candidate who credibly addressed issues like education and teacher pay, health care costs, and the flexibility to choose her own medical providers. All of these neighbors, save the first, told us that they were undecided. None had listened yet to any of the candidates’ remarks from the L&J dinner. Their votes were still up for grabs.

For people who are used to canvassing, Iowans are a breath of fresh air. They take their caucusing roles seriously— they genuinely listen and want to hear about the candidates and their policies. They do not rush the conversation, they are not rude, and they actually care. Perhaps that’s what happens when your small state is thrust into such a big role in a national election.

Indeed, my third evening in Iowa concluded with a spontaneous, organic conversation with a couple seated at the bar in a Des Moines restaurant called Centro. For 20 minutes, we spoke about our kids, why I had left my family to travel to Des Moines from Maryland, and why I am such a fan of Senator Harris. The couple then left the bar to go hear a Neil Diamond cover band, but not without asking me first how they, as Iowans, could help Kamala’s campaign.

As a vocal and visible Democrat on social media and in my community, I tend to receive a tidal wave of grieving texts, inconsolable emails, and somber phone calls regarding the state of our nation and the 2020 field. I get it. Here’s what I tell folks who reach out: I’m not worried about polls. I wish the media would stop trying to predict who will win the nomination and, ultimately, the election. Ordinary people should volunteer and work for whom they support, for the reasons they believe, in spite of the polls and the media’s spin. That’s what makes our democracy work.

They say laughter is the best medicine. For me, it turns out, it was Des Moines. The best prescription I can give to disillusioned Democrats—and others who care about the country—is to give yourself an early Hanukkah or Christmas gift. Book yourself a trip to Iowa and start knocking. I’ve got some restaurant recommendations if you need.

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Julie Rodin Zebrak

Follow Julie on Twitter @JulieZebrak. Julie Rodin Zebrak is the Washington Monthly's director of digital strategy and outreach. She is a veteran attorney with nearly 20 years of experience at the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice, and the founder and CEO of Yes Moms Can.