Juju Chang at Iowa State
Driving up to Iowa State’s campus on Tuesday night to see the co-host of ABC’s Nightline, Juju Chang, speak, a fellow Iowa Caucus Project team member and I entertained ourselves by guessing how many times a building on Drake’s campus could fit into one of the university’s many colossal halls.
Chang’s lecture, misleadingly titled “What Does It Take to Win the Iowa Presidential Caucuses?” made little mention of the Iowa Caucuses but instead focused on the viability of the presidential candidates. Admittedly, she did acknowledge that as the first in the nation caucuses, Iowa “disproportionately impacts the future of the United States,” going so far as to hyperbolically state that “the fate of the Republic lies in your hands.” I would have liked it if she expanded on this topic, since the practicality of the Iowa caucuses is highly contested, but after moving on to the candidates, I realized I was in for something pleasantly unexpected.
I was in no way disappointed by Chang’s lecture topic. She made some pretty enlightening comments regarding the candidates and their position in the polls. She even went so far as compare several of the Republican candidates to the Pope, who, with a 60 percent approval rating among Americans, is more popular than any candidate or President Obama. With seven out of 15 candidates identifying as Catholic, a positive alignment with the Pope would probably be substantially beneficial to a campaign and even the outcome of the caucuses.
The Pope’s popularity may also explain the draw to outsider candidates. Described as an unconventional religious figure, the Pope’s liberal-leaning stances on controversial issues such as marriage equality, the Church’s allegation of sexual abuse and immigration concern conservatives nervous about losing a previously staunch supporter of typically conservative stances. As Chang suggested, political outsiders like Trump, Carson, Fiorina and even Sanders may claim popularity due to their ability to take control of an institution that has gone off the rails – and bigger-name candidates are starting to take note.
Chang also made a tentative prediction on the likely republican nominee with the help of several expert statisticians and political analysts. Tied third in the polls with Fiorina behind Carson and Trump, the leading candidate with political experience, Marco Rubio, was praised by Chang for his liberal and conservative credentials that have the capacity to be praised or tolerated by both ends of the political spectrum. Against mentor Jeb Bush, whose current defeat by Rubio in the polls out of Florida serve as a kind of “comeuppance” according to Chang, the rationale of Rubio defeats the formidable candidate that is Bush on paper. Running a sort of stealth campaign in Iowa, Rubio lacks the flash of candidates such as Trump, Bush and Clinton – but maybe that’s what the American public wants. As Chang suggests, Rubio may have an edge as a generic candidate, not a name-brand like Bush or Clinton, whose reputations have been constructed by voters based on the political performance of their family members or spouses.
The media is not the best friend of politicians, and Chang knows this. She even admitted to the media’s contribution to the widespread demonization of politics and politicians. As a journalism and political sciences major, this isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was a truth that needed to be spoken and one of the elements I most valued about Chang’s speech. Her honesty and the carefulness with which she chose her words obviously reflected her profession, and I couldn’t help but create parallels between her lecture and the speeches of political candidates. From an immigrant family traveling to the United States from South Korea, she learned the value of hard work by watching her parents provide for her family through a multitude of small business jobs. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a similar background from a certain politician she focused on that night. Gratefully, she never once uttered the words “American Dream,” but if there was one, for me, she’s living it.
Sarah LeBlanc is a junior political science and journalism major from Madison, Wisconsin. She’s visited three countries in the last six months and enjoys copious amounts of Netflix, chocolate and bad puns. Follow her on Twitter.