Honors College Students Witness Caucus Chaos, Hone Research Skills in Iowa

DES MOINES—The Purdue students who traveled to Iowa for the 2020 Democratic caucuses never expected to be on the front lines of chaos, but are calling the unprecedented confusion a powerful learning experience. Now back in West Lafayette, they—and the nation—are reflecting on what went wrong. In fact, their research question: Are there limits to democracy? looks more relevant by the day.

The Iowa Democratic Party Chairman announced he was stepping down on Wednesday, eight days after the caucuses became a national embarrassment for the Democrats. Amid potential errors and inconsistencies, both Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg declared victory. Although Iowa officially gave Buttigieg the largest delegate count, the Associated Press and other major news outlets have refrained from calling a winner citing “irregularities”. The disruptions have many wondering if Iowa can retain its coveted “first” status.

“Beyond the issues with counting votes and awarding delegates, our students also witnessed the limitations of the caucus system itself, including the challenges people face in participating in the process,” said Honors College Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow Nathan Swanson.

Swanson has more intimate knowledge of the caucus system than most at Purdue. He grew up in the Quad Cities straddling Illinois and Iowa, and lived in central Iowa for many years as a student.  He participated in the process when he lived in the Hawkeye state and says the group of 13 students was surprised by just how different the caucus system was. 

“It’s a 2-3 hour event on a Monday night,” Swanson explained. “The voters our students interviewed say that’s difficult to commit to, especially for people who work or have children.”Students interviewing voters

“The caucus is a major political event and plays a central role in this research question,” said Natasha Duncan, Associate Dean for International Education and Affairs in the Honors College. “Iowa is hugely important in the race for the presidential nomination, despite its relative lack of diversity.” 

Duncan co-led the trip with Swanson and Purdue political science professor Nadia Brown. Initially, she says they were surprised by the results confusion. Everything appeared normal as the Purdue students observed caucusing in one of the largest precincts. It was only when polls closed that cracks began to show.

“The delay really impacted the energy at the watch parties—neither celebrations nor commiserations,” Duncan added.

For students intent on collecting qualitative research, via interviews and participant/direct observation, the caucuses provided both a fascinating, hands-on experience and rich data. According to Duncan, that’s what it’s all about. The program aims to immerse students in the democratic process as it unfolds.

Students interviewing voters“This is short-term, high-impact learning,” she added. “It is meant to expand methods training beyond the quintessential emphasis on quantitative methods you see commonly in political science programs across the country.”

Duncan is hopeful students will turn this project into publications, poster presentations, or op-eds. Data collection is now complete and the students are moving into the analysis phase. They say they’re eager to get a better read on democracy, while taking America’s political pulse.