IOWA CITY, Iowa — Laura Dickens was just starting to warm up to Elizabeth Warren. Then, she hears her theme song.
“Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin’, out on the street the traffic starts jumpin’. With folks like me on the job from 9 to 5,” the song goes.
Dickens shakes her head. Her highlighted blonde hair is pulled up into a messy bun, her shirt covered in dog hair that’s almost the same color.
“I don’t approve, because I work 24 hours a day as a mom,” she says. “I wish I could work 9-to-5.”
On this Thursday evening in January, cold enough for the packed snow in the driveway to develop a slippery sheen, Dickens is curled up on her couch, watching Senator Warren of Massachusetts deliver a stump speech. On Monday, Iowa will cast the first votes of the 2020 presidential election. Armed with her newly minted Democratic voter registration — acquired physically when she moved to Iowa City this fall, but mentally as soon as President Trump got elected — Dickens is fairly sure she’ll be caucusing for Warren.
Warren is not exactly Dickens’s ideal candidate. She can’t stand the idea that a whole generation of student debt could magically disappear. Her husband is a doctor — and together they spent almost 20 years paying off his medical school bills, skimping on everything, returning their oldest son’s baby clothes to Old Navy when he outgrew them so they could afford to buy new ones. Dickens doesn’t like Warren’s policies on universal pre-K, either: Babies belong with a parent, she says, not at a subsidized day care.
Much has been said this election cycle about Warren’s “electability”: She is too left, the argument goes, to appeal to voters in the middle in the general election. Dickens disagrees. Policy-wise, she knows it probably makes sense for her to go for a more moderate candidate — former vice president Joe Biden, maybe, or former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. But she doesn’t think either of them can win against President Trump.
And winning is absolutely her priority.
“It’s not so much that I am 100 percent Warren,” says Dickens, absentmindedly massaging the silky ears of the German Shepherd-mix snuggled up next to her.
Dickens gets up around 4:30 every morning, giving into whimpers and licks from her two dogs. She tiptoes downstairs alone, makes a cup of coffee, and sits in the living room with all the lights off, pulling up the New York Times on her phone. She reads for about two hours — first forcing herself through a few top international stories before getting to the stuff she really likes: domestic politics and policy. Eventually, one of her kids will come downstairs, asking for breakfast.
“I read my New York Times, I listen to my NPR,” she says. She’s spent time reading up on each of the candidates, thinking carefully about their strengths and (mostly) their weaknesses.
Buttigieg is too young, she says. Billionaire Tom Steyer has no political experience, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is “way too radical.” Biden is a “bozo” who never seems to say the right thing. Dickens likes Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), but she’s been disappointed with her performance in the debates. Warren seems “sharper” and “more polished,” she says. Dickens doesn’t worry about her getting flustered when she goes head-to-head with Trump.
At the beginning of all this, Dickens had hoped to find a candidate who would completely win her over.
“I wanted someone who I wanted to be president so bad that I would canvas for them, caucus for them, do anything to get them elected,” she says. For a while, that candidate was New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker. She identified with his message of “inclusiveness and unity.” He urged positivity and warned against anger. She liked that he talked about love a lot.
With just a few days left to go, Dickens says, she’s about 90 percent sure she’ll caucus for Warren, meaning that she’ll physically stand in the Warren corner of her precinct until her vote is counted. In the land of the other 10 percent, she goes into her precinct undecided — and gives herself up to the far more passionate supporters of other candidates who she knows will try to sway her.
“Whatever I’m gonna do,” she says, “I have to decide by Monday at 7 o’clock.”
Dickens’s family sits down to dinner at exactly 6:30 p.m. She brings out ceramic platters of peppered chicken breast and cheese tortellini, and her husband and kids begin to buzz around the food, bumping into each other while they move to fill their plates.
The meal begins, as always, with a prayer.
Dickens has always been deeply devoted to her faith. She’s not a “Christmas and Easter Catholic,” she says: She prays the rosary and goes to confession. She sent her kids to a high school where teachers regularly march students by the local abortion clinic in protest. She’s seen the pope four times.
Until recently, Dickens lived comfortably inside her identity as a Catholic, conservative, stay-at-home mom. She knew those labels came with a very specific set of associations and assumptions — but she never worried much about that. Whatever people thought about her, based on those labels, they probably weren’t too far off.
But then Trump became the Republican presidential candidate, and she started to question certain things. Right away, she knew she could never vote for him. This was particularly hard to swallow because of her long-standing distaste for former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. She’d watched her on “60 Minutes” during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, announcing to the world, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.” The comment was widely heard as an insult to stay-at-home moms.
“I took that as a direct affront on my choice to stay home with five kids and not work,” Dickens says.
Still, she voted for her. Dickens and her husband, who is Jewish, with relatives who escaped the Holocaust, worried about Trump’s fascist tendencies, she says, especially the racial and cultural division he seemed determined to sow. She couldn’t stand how he talked about women — and how he mocked the disabled. After Trump won, Dickens decided to switch parties. If she had any doubts about that choice, she says, they disappeared with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was a “bully,” she says. She felt sure about that.
When Dickens went to the DMV to register as a Democrat, it was “kind of traumatic,” she says. She’d always liked being a Republican. She knew exactly what it meant. Being a Democrat still feels foreign.
“I feel like my identity has been stripped away from me,” she says. “I can’t jump in with all these moms who work full-time and have two kids in day care and are like, ‘Save the whales.’ That’s not me.”
The most difficult piece of all this, Dickens says, is probably her stance on abortion. She’s always been fiercely antiabortion, as have her parents, and pretty much all her friends. She grew up in a working class neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, where almost everyone on her block was Irish Catholic. It was hard to see so many of her friends and family members vote for Trump, she says, but she understands exactly why they did. For them, a candidate’s views on abortion are paramount: They might not have liked Trump, personally, but he was antiabortion, and Clinton was not.
“The fact that I could support someone who supports abortion,” Dickens trails off. Stroking her other dog, a Shepherd Doberman mix, she gathers up tufts of hair and flicks them, one by one, onto the carpet.
Most of her friends don’t know that she voted for Clinton. She can’t imagine what they’d say if they knew she was planning to caucus for Warren.
After dinner, Dickens readies herself for the Iowa cold, pulling her Uggs on over her thick winter socks. She grabs a scarf and her Iowa Hawkeyes bobble hat.
It’s time to walk the dogs.
Her walking companion tonight is her oldest son, John. He is a freshman at the University of Iowa, going for a double major in political science and the ethics of public policy. Through the fall, he volunteered for the Booker campaign.
On issues of politics, Laura trusts John more than anyone else in the world. They make their political decisions based on a similar set of criteria, both more interested in a politician’s values — who they are as people — than the intricacies of their policy proposals.
“He’s like my research assistant,” she says. He texts her video clips of the various presidential candidates. She texts him gifs of cars swerving off the road, maternal appeals for him to please drive carefully.
After Booker dropped out of the race, John was torn between Sanders and Warren. At the University of Iowa, it can sometimes feel like the entire student population backs Sanders, he says: His supporters are known for lining up along the most populated walkway on campus, holding clipboards, trying to recruit as many students as possible for the caucuses. Especially for people his age, he knows Sanders is the “cool” candidate.
But when he was making his decision, he kept thinking about his mom, he says. And he just couldn’t picture her at a Sanders rally.
“I think she’d feel scared,” he says. Ultimately, he decided to throw his support behind Warren.
Laura knows that Warren and Sanders have very similar policies, both liberal populists set on some version of “big structural change.” But in her mind, the two candidates couldn’t be farther apart.
“I can’t go from voting for George Bush to voting for Bernie Sanders.” She stops, as if her reasons why should be self-explanatory. “I mean, I just can’t.”
John is right, Laura says: Bernie Sanders kind of scares her. In everything she reads, he comes across as angry and aggressive to her, painting a picture of a country in despair. But Laura is a positive person, she says. She doesn’t like confrontation. Whoever comes after Trump, she hopes they’ll prioritize “a return to civility and compromise” — setting a tone for a country where people make an earnest effort to get along.
Supporters of Sanders — the diehard ones, the “Bernie bros” — are scary, too, Laura says. She imagines they look something like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, “sleeping underneath a tarp, saying f— the man.” She doesn’t feel like she has anything in common with those people. If they were to come to her house, a comfortable family home on a quiet cul-de-sac, she’s sure she’d feel judged.
“They’d be like, ‘Oh, she’s just white and privileged and doesn’t have a job. She’s the problem,’” Dickens says. “They seem really angry at people who aren’t struggling.”
That kind of perspective is frustrating to Dickens, partly because they did struggle. They still do, in some ways. Her husband makes a good salary, but they only recently finished paying off his loans. And now they have five kids, ages 18, 16, 14, 12, and 11. When John graduated as valedictorian of his high school class, she says, he could have gone to a much more competitive school. But they couldn’t afford it.
Warren and her supporters, on the other hand, don’t come across as judgmental, Dickens says. Warren seems upbeat and excited, discussing all her many plans for the future. She uses the word “hope.”
Dickens is a little nervous about going to caucus. She’s been reading up on exactly how the system works, since she just moved here from Michigan, where you vote in primaries. She is worried that the people in the Sanders corner, in particular, are going to try to intimidate her. She wishes John could be there to back her up, but he’s registered to caucus out of his dorm room, a few miles down the road.
Dickens still has a few more days to do her research. In the iPhone glow of her pre-dawn living room, she plans to review her pro-Warren arguments, rehearsing exactly what she might say to other camps who try to pull her away.
Maybe they’ll argue that Warren can’t win moderates.
“Oh, I think she can,” she’ll say. “I really do.”