‘First In The Nation’ Exhibit Goes Live
“Iowans don’t pick the president, we narrow the field and set the stage for the rest of the country. That’s why we’ve been shaping presidential politics since 1972.”
These are the words that float through the air as I walk into the bright red and blue atrium housing the First in the Nation exhibit at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines. The room is plastered with pictures and memorabilia of political campaigns from years gone by, walking viewers through a chronological history of the Iowa caucuses rise to relevance.
On the left I pass a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Jimmy Carter, the man who brought the caucuses into a national spotlight. A few feet after, the smiling face of Ronald Reagan looks out over a crowd of farmers in a picture from his days campaigning in Iowa. Farther down the glass display windows, I see a toothbrush still shrink-wrapped in plastic with the words “Brush Away Dubbya” printed on the side.
The exhibit shows touches of nostalgia, bits of campaign oddities, and a reach for a younger audience as evidenced by a table holding cutouts of each current presidential candidate’s head on a stick for when the need to take a selfie calls.
Following my stroll through the exhibit, I sat down in the museum’s lecture hall to listen to a panel discussion with Dr. Andy MacGuire, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, and Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a member of the Iowa GOP Central Committee. The panel was moderated by David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political reporter and current director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
The two women discussed ways their respective parties are engaging voters in the caucuses, the effect it has on our own state political process, and the reasons why Iowa really is best suited to be “first in the nation.”
At the end of the discussion, Yepsen opened for questions from the audience. Let me pause here to give an idea of what exactly that audience looked like. The gorgeous wood-paneled lecture hall could have easily seated 200 people, which made it look that much sparser considering the thirty mostly old, mostly white people it currently held.
In the interest of full disclosure, the lecture started pretty early in the morning. But this stuff is cool and it’s happening right here. There were two intelligent people from opposites sides of the aisle, sitting on a stage together, talking about one of the strangest political processes that takes place in this country. And that still isn’t compelling content for many voters, especially young ones.
So as the resident young person, I raised my hand to ask the same question I ask at every political event I go to.
“I’m a college student. When I talk politics with my friends who aren’t into politics, how do I explain to them that this stuff matters?”
Dr. MacGuire responded saying that politics are important because this how you decide the future of your country. Dr. Miller-Meeks, the Republican, took a different angle, suggesting I ask a student what is important to them, not just a political issue but any issue. Maybe there’s a performer they want to bring to campus or a type of food they want in the dining hall. Then I should explain to them that in order to make that dream a reality you have to talk about it to friends and strangers alike, get people to believe your vision is a good one, and buy into it themselves. And that’s politics.
“Politics is everything,” said Miller-Meeks, “not just campaigns and elections.”
I agree with both women. Politics are important because they decide your future and your everyday. Let’s hope that concept attracts more people to this exhibit than the presidential selfie sticks.
Ramsey is a senior public relations major with a concentration in politics. She is a proud Iowan who watches too much SNL and is the only journalism student in recorded history without a coffee habit. Follow her on Twitter.