Iowa draws starstruck political tourists from around the world

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — On a recent Saturday evening in this small town where the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens played their final show, three college friends wandered starstruck through the Surf Ballroom.

Here, they pointed to CNN political director David Chalian. There, they watched Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) press the flesh.

{mosads}Clear Lake had become the center of the political universe for a single night, when northern Iowa Democrats held their annual Wing Ding fundraiser. Leah Chukumba, her husband Anthony Chukumba and their friend Julie Levin came to see it all up close — even though, come caucus time, none of them will be able to vote.

“The rest of the country is super envious of Iowans,” Levin said. She had traveled from just outside Boston to see Leah, who grew up here but now lives in Evanston, Ill. 

Levin insisted, unconvincingly, that Leah’s recent birthday had been her real reason for traveling to this small town of just 7,500 residents. The Chukumbas admitted that while they would get to see family on their trip home, they timed their visit so that they could see the presidential circus come through town.

The three friends are part of a quadrennial phenomenon unique to Iowa and New Hampshire: Political tourism. As Iowa and New Hampshire voters watch the presidential candidates, they are in turn being watched by visitors eager for a glimpse of the uniquely American tradition of the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary states.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity. I’m really interested to see how the field narrows,” Leah Chukumba said. Anthony Chukumba, who said he has gotten more into politics since President Trump’s election, is interested in younger candidates like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). “I don’t want another old white guy,” he said.

The next day, Richard Evans is standing in the shade at the Iowa State Fair, prepared for the harsh Midwestern sun in a bucket hat and sunglasses. He traveled to Iowa — from Surrey, in the United Kingdom — specifically for the state fair.

The day he is here, he will get to see three of the leading candidates in the race, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Evans, a staunch remainer in the Brexit debate, said he saw parallels between the political earthquakes that shook both the U.K. and the U.S. in 2016. “The two big events of 2016, the Brexit vote and the Trump election, are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

Political tourism is a nascent business, and not one that is likely to make a significant splash in Iowa’s larger economy.

Overall tourism generated $8.5 billion in economic activity in Iowa in 2018, according to the Travel Federation of Iowa. There are no estimates of the number of tourists who come to watch politics at play. Iowa has never advertised itself to tourists eager to see the caucus process up close, perhaps to keep a clear line between partisan politics and state spending.

What’s more, it is not clear that the first-in-the-nation caucus is a significant economic benefit to Iowa overall, said David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University and the author of a 2008 study on the subject.

“There will be periodic flows of press and candidates into the state, most candidates have developed their field staffs to the degree that funding will allow, and there will be a [lot] of advertising eventually,” Swenson said. “But the economic impact is nonetheless comparatively trivial given the whole Iowa economy.”

Iowa’s gross domestic product was about $190 billion last year, Swenson said. Most caucus-related spending in Iowa — by the candidates, the media and tourists — will go to corporations that are housed out of state, like rental car companies, hotel chains and media conglomerates.

And even if all 24 of the Democratic candidates jockeying for caucus position employed as many staffers as the largest campaign on the ground right now — former Vice President Joe Biden’s team claims 75 organizers and staff working on his behalf — that would only amount to 1,800 new jobs, or less than one one-thousandth the 2.1 million jobs in Iowa.

That makes the caucuses similar to major sporting events like NCAA tournaments, MLB’s All-Star Game and the Super Bowl —all of which earn wall-to-wall media attention, but don’t necessarily deliver significant economic results for their hosts.

“A lot of money will get spent. There will be some short-term hires. There will be concentrated outcomes in the major metros with Des Moines realizing the bulk of the benefits. But the profits from it all primarily accumulate out of state,” Swenson said. “We are merely a political outpost to a much larger political industrial complex that gets disproportionate attention.”

But, to paraphrase another story unique to Iowa, if you hold a caucus, they will come. An informal straw poll conducted by WHO-TV, using corn kernels, included votes from at least a few fairgoers who confessed they were not actually Iowans, though they had strong feelings about the Democratic primary nonetheless.

Patty Crawford, a Florida resident visiting her sister in Des Moines, said she voted for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the WHO kernel count.

“I think we need fresh. I think we need the younger people to bring freshness,” Crawford said. She was horrified to learn that her sister, who supported Harris in the kernel count, had voted for President Trump in 2016.

Albert Brouwer traveled to the fair from Wichita, Kan., an annual trip he makes with his wife. This year, he voted for Warren.

“I like her politics. I think she’s aggressive and knowledgeable,” Brouwer said.

Burt Bibbons, from Tulsa, Okla., was visiting his adult children when he stopped by WHO’s booth. He voted for former Vice President Joe Biden, who led the Democratic field.

“I’ve always been a policy person, but this particular year, it’s who can beat Trump,” he said. “If you don’t win, it doesn’t matter what your policies are.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Beto O'Rourke Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg Tim Ryan

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