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Democrats, Republicans Gather In Iowa To Cast First Votes Of 2016 Election


Well, this is it. Caucus day is here, and people throughout Iowa are making their final decisions. After months of buildup, tens of millions of dollars in ads spending and a campaign that no one could have predicted, the presidential race is, for the moment, in the hands of Iowans. They're gathered at local churches, schools, even storm shelters to declare their choice for the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Now, the action got underway across the state just a few minutes ago, and we want to go now to a number of NPR reporters who have fanned out at caucus sites around Des Moines. And first up is NPR's Tamara Keith. Hey there, Tamara.


CORNISH: And of course, you're at a Democratic caucus site on the Campus of Drake University in Des Moines. I know people have been talking about Bernie Sanders being popular with college kids and campuses. But tell us what you're hearing.

KEITH: Well, so I'm actually at a site that has a Republican caucus and a Democratic caucus. The Republicans are upstairs. The Democrats are down in the basement. And these caucus sites are absolutely packed. And I talked to a lot of the students down in the Democratic site, and you know, there was a real mix of - definitely a majority Bernie supporters among people I spoke to but also a couple of people who say they plan to support former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley knowing that he's likely not to be viable. And then they'll shift their vote in the second round. One woman I spoke to said she was planning to switch to Hillary. Another one said she was planning to switch to Bernie Sanders.

CORNISH: Now, NPR's Don Gonyea is at a Republican caucus site in Johnston, Iowa. Hey there, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hi. I'm at Summit Middle School.

CORNISH: Summit Middle School - all right. So how is this set up - this Republican caucus site?

GONYEA: Democrats are here as well. It's funny. I walked in the door, and somebody immediately said to me, Republicans to the left, Democrats to the right.


GONYEA: I thought they had it backwards, but (laughter) that's how they're doing it. So that - but I'm watching the Republicans. I'm in the back of the room. They're in the cafeteria at this middle school, and it is packed. The caucus chairman told me that it looks like it's a really, really, really solid turnout. Because people are still filing in, they haven't started yet. They made an announcement that they're going to give people a little bit more time but will have some speeches very shortly.

CORNISH: NPR's Sam Sanders is at a union hall in Des Moines where Democrats will be caucusing. And Sam, I know over the course of this campaign, you've looked for first-time caucus-goers. What are you seeing?

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: I'm seeing lots of first-timers, but I'm seeing a very mixed crowd tonight. The biggest thing that I've noticed is that this room is really full. They've already delayed the start of this because there's a hundred folks still outside. It looks like there are folks from both sides here, and it's a very, very diverse crowd.

CORNISH: And we should note that you're whispering - caucus.


CORNISH: It means that people are - right? - they're doing instructions.

SANDERS: Yeah. It is a really cool scene. I mean, there's lots of people here. They all seem like they're ready for the long haul. They're being very patient and nice, as Iowans are. But there's still a hundred folks outside trying to get in.

CORNISH: Now, NPR's Sarah McCammon is at the Valley Evangelical Free Church in West Des Moines - again, a spot where both Republicans and Democrats will be holding caucuses. Sarah, can you describe what's happening? People have made a lot about turnout coming from Evangelical communities.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Yeah. It looks like a big turnout here. And yeah, this is - there's both a Democratic and Republican caucus here. The Republicans are in the main sanctuary which seats several hundred people, and it looks pretty full. The Democrats also - they're down the hall in a smaller chapel, but I saw a long line heading into that caucus site as well - so good turnout here tonight.

I'm actually standing in the church lobby 'cause, like at Sam's site, things are getting going here (laughter), and I don't want to interrupt. But speeches are about to begin. Most of the people I talked to mostly here at the Republican site have either made of their minds or they've narrowed it down to just a couple candidates. Several people told me they think they know what they're going to do, but they want to hear the speeches before they totally make up their minds. They want to listen to their neighbors before they decide. And they do have a lot of choices this year as Republicans.

CORNISH: Right. We should explain to people. Although they do the process a little bit differently, both Republicans and Democrats will get to hear from surrogates and people making speeches making a plea for their candidate, right?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, that's right. They'll get up, and representatives will sort of make their case. And that's sort of the last pitch, you know, before these caucus-goers write a name of a candidate on a piece of paper and it gets collected and counted, and that's pretty much that.

CORNISH: I want to go back to NPR's Don Gonyea for a minute. Don, you've had a lot of experience covering this - and ask a really, maybe, silly question. But the weather - I know people talk about, you know, the - these kinds of things can make a different - difference in terms of turnout.

GONYEA: Absolutely. I remember slipping and sliding over snow banks and frozen sidewalks eight years ago getting to a Democratic caucus in Des Moines. The weather tonight is - so far, it's just fine - a little fog on the freeways. I have talked to a number of people here who are first-time caucus participants, but two of them told me that it wasn't a lack of interest or anything else that kept them away in the past. It was always that they had to work because you only get this narrow two hours...

CORNISH: Right, this...

GONYEA: ...That you have to show up.

CORNISH: It is a Monday night, and you've got to be in it for the long haul, more or less. I want to end with NPR's Tamara Keith. Tamara, you've been hearing kind of the final plea from candidates over the last few days. What is the sense you're getting that people - the argument they're making to close out?

KEITH: Well, on the Democratic side, certainly the argument from Bernie Sanders is - and these kids - these college students reflect it - is that he could really do the change thing. He could disrupt things. He talks a lot about revolution. And Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, talks about getting things done - and a little bit more pragmatic. And some of the students I talked to also felt like her message was getting through.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith in Des Moines. We also heard from NPR's Don Gonyea, Sam Sanders, as well as Sarah McCammon. We'll be hearing from our reporters throughout the night as NPR will be bringing results and analysis of the Iowa caucuses all evening long. We also want to encourage you to visit our website. NPR's got a new elections page. You can find it at where you can see all kinds of real-time data coming in as well as information on social media. Tweet to us @NPRpolitics. We'll be chatting throughout the evening. And we'll be bringing you the results and analysis throughout the night with special coverage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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