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Up close at the Democratic Debate in Des Moines

After the debate, it’s time to declare a job well done. Mark Kauzlarich/REUTERS

Iowa is a small state in the rural Midwest that is far off the beaten track from the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

But for the next 80 days, Iowa sits at the epicenter of the American political landscape.

On February 1, Iowa holds its famous caucuses, the first election of the 2016 presidential campaign. Although the state has only 3 million people and is far less diverse than the nation as a whole, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status has given Iowans a front-row seat to every presidential campaign since 1972.

Saturday night provided a case in point. The Democratic presidential candidates met at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for a nationally-televised debate on CBS.

I teach at Drake and the spectacle that surrounded the debate was truly a sight to see.

The debate preparations

It’s easy to overlook what a huge undertaking a presidential debate is.

The debate was held in Old Main, the oldest building on campus and one of the loveliest. In the days before the debate, a long row of television and sound trucks lined up next to Old Main. The distinguished old building quickly became surrounded by huge satellite dishes, electronic equipment, cables, and security personnel.

By Saturday morning, a buzz of activity could be seen and felt throughout campus and the surrounding area.

Former President Bill Clinton shook hands with pedestrians in downtown Des Moines. Martin O’Malley walked through campus a few hours before the debate wearing blue jeans. The Bernie Sanders campaign hosted a pre-debate tailgate on the edge of campus. Vendors handed out campaign buttons and bumper stickers.

But amid the excitement were reminders of the age of terrorism in which we live. A huge number of Des Moines police officers, Drake security personnel, and Secret Service agents guarded Old Main and the routes to and from the building. The horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night were the main topic of conversation all day long in Des Moines.

The debate itself

The debate was held in Old Main’s Sheslow Auditorium, a cozy venue that seats only 800 people, far smaller than the typical sprawling presidential debate stage. The candidates stood just a few feet from the moderators and the audience.

I watched the debate from Cartwright Hall, an adjacent building that served as the media’s spin room. CBS built temporary stages and sound studios on the second floor of Cartwright Hall the day before the debate. By the time the debate started at 8 PM local time, journalists, political commentators, campaign staffers, and CBS production workers filled the building.

When the debate started, everyone fell silent in the spin room. The reporters and campaign officials hung on the candidates’ every word, often taking notes with pen and paper or typing on their laptops.

As soon as the debate ended, dozens of advisers for the presidential campaigns flooded into the spin room to meet with the media. The sound of so many people talking at once resembled a jetliner preparing for take off.

Each of the campaigns seemed happy with their candidates’ performances. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley kept Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner, on the defensive most of the night because of her vote for the Iraq War and her ties to Wall Street. Despite the attacks, Clinton maintained a relaxed but firm demeanor throughout the evening.

The main substantive difference between the candidates regarded economic issues. Sanders and O’Malley called for a $15 minimum wage, whereas Clinton advocated a $12 minimum wage.

The most memorable line of the night came when Sanders defended his tax hike proposal. After noting that the top marginal-tax-rate under President Eisenhower was 90%, Sanders quipped: “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.”

But Clinton had the most to smile about. She has a big lead in the Democratic race, with an 18-point lead in Iowa and a 19-point lead nationally. Crucially, Clinton also possesses a virtual monopoly on endorsements and superdelegates, the key Democratic party figures who help decide the nomination.

Nothing that happened on Saturday night threatens Clinton’s commanding position in the Democratic race. With 80 days to go until the caucuses, she remains a clear favorite to win.

But is Iowa really ready for the caucuses?

The debate went off without a hitch and today Drake’s campus has returned to normal. You would never know that a presidential debate was held here on Saturday night.

But as the candidates depart Des Moines and return to the campaign trail, a key question remains: Will the caucuses run as smoothly as Saturday night’s debate?

There is reason for doubt. Unlike primary elections, which state and local governments administer, caucuses are private events administered by the political parties.

The problem is the parties lack the organizational structure to run large-scale elections. As the media circus that surrounds the Iowa caucuses grows bigger every four years, the parties have struggled to keep up.

For example, in 2012 the state Republican Party mismanaged the caucuses so badly that they declared the wrong winner. On caucus night 2012, the Iowa Republican Party announced that Mitt Romney had won the caucuses. But after a recount, it was discovered that Rick Santorum was the actual winner.

Could history repeat in 2016? Many Iowa Democrats fear it might next February.

Therefore, with the caucuses fast approaching, the Iowa Republican and Democratic state parties must scramble to ensure that the caucuses proceed as smoothly as Saturday night’s debate. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status may depend on it.

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