DES MOINES — Four years ago, Jen Geigley walked a half-mile home from the Iowa caucuses in the dark, trudging through the snow and cold. A few hours earlier, her two young children melted down.
It was well after 10 p.m. Her husband had driven their children home and put them to bed, but that left her without a car.
The Geigleys had arrived at the caucuses prepared, bringing iPads and video games to entertain their children, Lotus, then 8, and Bowie, then 3, who has autism.
“The crowd was too much for him — the people, the noise, just the whole thing was a bit overwhelming,” says Geigley, 42, of West Des Moines, Iowa.
This year, Geigley and her husband are trying a different strategy: She hired a teenage babysitter who isn’t old enough to vote. “If it does take a little longer this year, we don’t have to worry about our kids. I feel peace of mind about our decision and feel really lucky that we were able to find somebody in high school,” Geigley says. Asking someone who is a registered Democrat or Republican and over 18 to babysit would prevent that person from caucusing.
On Monday, Iowa parents will make two seismic decisions.
The first: who to support in the caucuses, the first contest of the 2020 presidential election. Although the winners routinely end up not winning their party’s nomination, doing poorly in Iowa is considered a bellwether.
It’s that second decision for caucus-goers that can be even more perplexing: Do I bring my kids?
If caucusing was just a matter of voting — maybe there’s a line, but otherwise you’re in and you’re out — it would be an easier question. Why wouldn’t a parent want to bring children along, to show them democracy in action, to be a part of history?
But to those in Iowa, it’s a lot less clear. To caucus is to enter unpredictable terrain. The caucuses start at 7 p.m., but participants are encouraged to be there as early as 6 p.m. There are long lines, dizzying realignments and hours of waiting, sometimes outdoors, but more often in overheated gymnasiums or dry office buildings.
The proceedings extend deep into the night, with party business including platform discussions and delegate selections following the presidential-preference portion.
Parenting has evolved to be more egalitarian, with research showing fathers now spend more time than ever before with their children. But in heterosexual relationships, figuring out child care solutions often still fall to the mother.
“I do feel like the women — the moms — are always the ones figuring out babysitting,” Geigley says. “It’s definitely kind of my role in our family. I take care of that or think about that first. I don’t want a repeat of what we did in 2016.”
It’s a problem that has more creative and ambitious solutions in the digital age, but still adds to long-running criticisms of accessibility to the caucuses. After all, if women can’t attend, are forced to leave early, or are too distracted to fully participate, will the leaders selected be truly representative of the people?
Volunteers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) campaign in one location tried to make the decision easier: They are providing free child care at a Warren field office in Iowa City tonight. A sign-up form that circulated on social media over the weekend said “trained providers” would be present, but it didn’t include any other details about caregivers’ credentials.
It’s a problem that can be even more challenging for single moms, but it’s one that Abbey Hall, 38, of Waukee, Iowa, has embraced.
She has already taken her three daughters, Addyson, 12, Brevyn, 5, and Daetyn, 3, to see different candidates who have visited the Des Moines area in recent months. Although she could leave Addyson home to babysit her younger sisters on Monday night, she wants the three of them to see the Iowa caucuses firsthand.
“My oldest was asking me, ‘What is a caucus? How does that work?’ I think experiencing it is really the best way to show them how that works, and how we end up choosing our leaders,” Hall says.
She’s planning to bring snacks, water and a Kindle as a last resort.
The statistics on who participates in the Iowa caucuses aren’t precise and are based mostly on entrance polls, says Dianne Bystrom, who served for 22 years as the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics in Ames, Iowa. She’s written extensively about the 2016 Iowa caucuses. In that year, women comprised the majority (57 percent) of Democratic Party caucus-goers, according to Edison Research. Men made up the majority (52 percent) of Republican caucus-goers.
Women are finding a way to caucus despite the unique challenges that child care poses, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Fran Biel, 31, of Urbandale, Iowa, recently moved to the state from Oregon and will be participating in the caucuses for the first time. Her older two daughters will stay home with her husband, who is registered as an independent. She plans to wear and nurse her 4-month-old daughter, Ilana, in an infant carrier. As a first-timer, she feels overwhelmed by the unknowns.
“I don’t know how long we’ll have to potentially wait outside. I don’t know if I’ll have to carry my jacket and her car seat around with me from place to place as we move and talk,” Biel says. Certainly, there are children and babies who might be able to roll with a long night that is unpredictable and often dull. But many kids can’t.
Reyma McCoy McDeid, 39, of Des Moines, has been at the intersection of parenthood and politics since 2018, when she ran as a single mom and Democrat for a seat in the Iowa state House. McCoy McDeid was the first state legislative candidate to ask state regulators for a ruling on whether campaign funds could be used for campaign-related child care expenses. (Regulators deferred to the state Legislature, which has not weighed in.)
“It’s sort of become a part of what I do. I am constantly thinking about how to navigate the sphere as a mom, and so the caucuses are certainly no exception to that,” she says.
McCoy McDeid is the executive director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living, or CICIL, which is one of 87 hosts for a new phenomenon in 2020: the satellite caucus. Most of the caucus participants at the center will be adults with physical, mental or developmental disabilities.
In previous cycles, their only option to participate would have been to be physically present at 7 p.m. on a specific night at the meeting place designated for their address — a burdensome requirement not just for the disabled, but also for evening-shift workers, snowbirds, and those without reliable transportation, among other groups.
CICIL employees have worked together to find a creative child care solution for the 12-plus children they are expecting to show up on Monday night. The children will be participating in a “Mickey Mouse Caucus,” throwing their support behind their favorite Disney character. McCoy McDeid’s daughter, Alsatia, 5, is prepared to back Queen Elsa of “Frozen.”
Pizza and soft drinks will be served, with CICIL employees supervising the children.
Many women said that with Iowa’s unique place in the presidential nominating process, they feel an obligation to participate regardless of the obstacles.
Geigley, the mom who hired the teenage babysitter, says it’s important to her that both she and her husband are able to stay until the end this time.
“This year, there’s more at stake. This is one of the most important elections in our lives, and I want to be a part of it every step of the way,” she says. “And since we’re in Iowa, I think we should absolutely be involved.”