The first stop on the Rosenfield Program’s Iowa Caucus Economy study tour was the flagship store and production center of RAYGUN, an iconic Iowa business that sells items printed with snarky Midwest-pride slogans and political statements. On our visit, students and administrators talked with RAYGUN artistic director Jennifer Leatherby and got a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s on-site shipping and screen-printing processes. She explained that RAYGUN’s in-house production methods, especially their traditional manual screen-printing method, allow them to test out designs in small batches to see how they sell. We learned about the company’s custom orders, popular with Democratic candidates, and then went upstairs to see how a design goes from a picture on a screen to a finished T-shirt.
The next stop on the Des Moines leg of our tour was Link Strategies, a political consulting firm led by Jeff Link. Link, a longtime Democratic campaign operative, spoke to us about his career path to consulting and the changing nature of the field. For instance, he noted that when he started his firm 20 years ago, he was the only campaign consultant in the Des Moines area; now there are eight other firms serving Democrats alone. We also talked to Danny Shelton, now working for Link Strategies. Though only a few years out of school, he had already acquired a great deal of experience working on national campaigns. Both he and Link emphasized the importance of traditional grassroots organizing as a stepping stone to high-impact policy work. For those looking for places to gain that experience, they noted that Iowa is a political mecca second only to Washington, D.C.
The group had the privilege of having lunch with media specialists, Grinnell Trustee Connie Wimer, owner of Des Moines Business Record, and Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register Reporter.
A brisk walk on Locust Street took us to the offices of the Des Moines Register where we met opinion editor Kathie Obradovich. Kathie took us on a tour of the Des Moines Register, including a look at some of the paper’s coverage of memorable caucus moments. In talking about what it took to become a journalist, Obradovich stated that if you are afraid to take a bold stance, don’t work in the newsroom.
McKenzie Waldroup from Newberry Property Management spoke with our group about how staffers and campaign managers locate apartment leases that fit the needs of the irregular campaign time frames. Although most apartment leases are usually for a 12-month period, special 8-month leases are offered at a higher-than-market rate for campaign employees.
Day two began at Renaissance Des Moines Savory Hotel. This premier downtown hotel is booked by campaigns and the media for the lead-up to the caucuses. The unusually high demand has a strong impact on rates, and the hotel’s caucus-related revenue is a central component of its finances. Meeting the varied needs of caucus guests creates unusual challenges for staff, including Tara McFarling, director of sales and marketing, who spoke to the group.
Discussion at the headquarters of the Iowa Republican Party in Des Moines enlightened the Rosenfield group on the economic impact of the caucuses on Iowa. Billy Webb, regional organizing director, and Aaron Britt, the party’s communications director, addressed the Republican Party’s role as an impartial organizer of the caucuses. The party provides the same services for each of the campaigns — no matter the standing in the race. Conversation was then directed to the costs of the caucuses — renting space for the event, printing information, etc.
The group then made its way to the Iowa Democratic Party. This establishment benefits from the caucuses economically — but costs are also incurred in managing the caucuses. The IDP relies on contributions from candidates and Democrats to support the party but donations must be closely monitored, in order to comply with Federal Election Commission guidelines. The party also sells its voter file data to candidates as an additional source of revenue.
The last stop in Des Moines was at the airport to visit Signature, a fixed-base operator who provides services for planes carrying the candidates and their staff, along with privacy not afforded by commercial airports.
The group then traveled to Iowa City and made their way to The Makers Loft in Iowa City. Simeon Talley is the owner of The Makers Loft in Iowa City and believes that the Iowa Caucuses definitely have a positive effect on his business. This was evident as many of his products, primarily from local artists, relate to politics. Simeon says that the campaign work he did back in ’07 and ’08 equipped him with skills that led him to be successful in his small business. He learned to talk with people — to communicate, delegate, and advocate.
The following morning we were welcomed to KGAN, where Tony Wilkins, director of sales, explained campaign TV ad buys at this FOX/CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids.
Union printer Adcraft in downtown Cedar Rapids is owned by Sean Gallagher. Gallagher explained to the group how Adcraft produces material with the signature union bug for political campaigns.
New Bo is a nonprofit retail space and business incubator and the site of much caucus activity, including the summer 2019 Progress Iowa “Corn Feed.” The group had lunch at this unique space located in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village.
At the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Zach Kucharski, executive editor, and Craig Gemoules, managing editor, discussed how the newspaper deploys its resources to cover the caucus campaign.
The next feature on the tour was a stop at Elizabeth Warren’s campaign headquarters. Emmet Sandberg ’18 is a campaign staffer here and explained that committing to a campaign is a risk. The candidate can drop out of the race and the staffers would find themselves unemployed. On the other hand, if the politician is successful, the workers have a lot of room to advance in their political career. He went on to explain that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign employees are unionized, giving the workers security as they receive monthly salaries that are equal to earning around 50k a year. The staffers are also provided with gas cards and dental, vision, and health insurance, which offers stability in such an uncertain process.
The high energy at the Kamala Harris campaign headquarters was evident as workers there — in the heart of Iowa City — talked about the rewards of working on the campaign and told how many close relationships are formed and the experience is valuable for almost any career.