Iowa town named ‘Clinton’ went for Trump in 2016, but Democrats now banking on change, ‘cult personality’ – and cookies

Over the sounds of dribbling basketballs from a nearby gymnasium, caucus chair Andrew Kelley kicked off Clinton Middle School’s caucus: “Go with your heart, who you like.”

SHARE Iowa town named ‘Clinton’ went for Trump in 2016, but Democrats now banking on change, ‘cult personality’ – and cookies
Julie Raab, a precinct captain for Elizabeth Warren, makes the rounds at the Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa. Raab couldn’t coral enough votes to get delegates — but she had more takers for her homemade cookies.

Julie Raab, a precinct captain for Elizabeth Warren, makes the rounds at the Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa. Raab couldn’t coral enough votes to get delegates — but she had more takers for her homemade cookies.

Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

CLINTON, Iowa — In a county under the magnifying glass — one of many President Donald Trump turned red four years ago — caucusgoers gathered Monday night at a middle school in east-central Iowa to make pitches for the minimum wage, free child care and mint chocolate chip cookies.

Over the sounds of dribbling basketballs from a nearby gymnasium, caucus chair Andrew Kelley kicked off Clinton Middle School’s part of the state’s first-in-the-nation winnowing of the presidential field.

“Go with your heart, who you like,” Andrew Kelley, told caucus-goers at the beginning of the count. “You might be surprised who you get.”

It was just one of the nearly 1,700 precinct caucuses across the state.

And ultimately, the 118 Democrats in a Clinton Middle School common room chose Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg — the three being the only candidates to meet a 15% threshold of support from those present to receive delegates.

Sanders supporters wound up outnumbering the others — at 43 — after poaching some undecided voters, and even an Andrew Yang supporter. Three supporters for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar walked away after the first round after not making the cut.

The cookies helped sweeten the bitter taste of defeat.

“Here. Take a sad Elizabeth Warren mint chocolate chip cookie even though you didn’t come to our side,” Julie Raab, 58, a precinct captain for Elizabeth Warren said as she handed a plastic container of cookies to a Yang supporter who had already declined to join the Warren crowd.

Steve Wehling, a precinct captain for Bernie Sanders, counts his preference cards in Clinton, Iowa.

Steve Wehling, a precinct captain for Bernie Sanders, counts his preference cards in Clinton, Iowa. The Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren supporters outnumbered others at the caucus site for Precinct 42 at Clinton Middle School.

Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

Clinton County is one of nine eastern Iowa counties that flipped from going for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, to Donald Trump in 2016. The city of Clinton’s population was about 25,480 in 2017. It’s the largest city in Clinton County, where the total population is about 47,000 — or roughly the size of west suburban Elmhurst.

Clinton is a blue-collar micropolitan, once called the “sawmill capital of the nation.”

In 2016, Clinton County voters voted 48.88% for Trump, and 43.76% for Hillary Clinton, even though there were more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county, according to county election records. There were more than 31,000 registered voters in that contest.

Clinton Middle School wasone of eight caucus sites in the city.

Logan Vo, 30, told other Precinct 42 caucusgoers he’s seen his community afflicted by poverty, with good-paying jobs hard to find and people fleeing elsewhere to find better work.

“The people here are desperate for change and that is why Trump won our county,” Logan Vo, a Yang supporter, said in his pitch for supporters.

“The reason I support Yang is he’s given me hope, not only for my loved ones, but for my community,” he said.

Yang supporters numbered nine —only half the minimum for viability. But Vo ultimately went to the Sanders side.

“Bernie is a cult personality,” and I think you need a cult personality to beat Trump,” Vo said.

Tension was limited in the room. Raab’scookies helped. After visiting the Yang supporters, she went to offer the baked goods to the Sanders team.

Supporters of each campaign applauded each other, even if they didn’t agree with one another.

“It’s much different than it was four years ago,” Raab, 58, of Clinton, said. “I am very impressed by the camaraderie. Everybody that you talk to has very similar feelings. We’re all going to vote blue. We have to.”

First time caucus-goer Larry Fogg hands a Pete Buttigieg sticker to an Amy Klobuchar supporter in his efforts to get her support at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa.

First time caucus-goer Larry Fogg hands a Pete Buttigieg sticker to an Amy Klobuchar supporter in his efforts to get her support at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa. Klobuchar failed to get the support of 18 caucus-goers, required to meet the 15% threshold to be considered viable in Precinct 42.

Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

While multiple polls — and a CNN entrance poll showed Biden, Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders as the top four – not everyone entered the caucus with their heart set.

Julie Walwer, 65, of Clinton brought her own research — a questionnaire that covered candidates’ stances on various issues, such as health insurance and climate change. She studied it for about 20 minutes before the caucus began.

But it was Sanders’ support for declaring climate change a national emergency that led her to walk over to the Sanders tables.

“My deciding thing is I feel Bernie is the most aggressive on the environmental issues,” Walwer said. “And I think if we don’t address it, nothing else is going to matter.”

Melissa Franzen, 31, of Clinton, is a precinct captain for Yang. She said the Sanders campaign pitched her team about a $15 minimum wage, the Warren team about daycare.

“I’m Yang or bust,” Franzen said. “The Yang supporters are really passionate about only Yang. I feel like he’s the only one who’s progressive during this time, with automation. A $15 minimum wage doesn’t really help me as a stay at home parent.”

Andrew Yang precinct captain Melissa Franzen.

Andrew Yang precinct captain Melissa Franzen says although her candidate isn’t viable at the Clinton caucus, she’s “Yang or bust” and won’t support another nominee.

Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

Franzen said she found meaning in Yang’s campaign— volunteering for about a year.

“When Yang speaks at events, he speaks for all of us. He looks at us like we all have a value and like we all have potential,” Franzen said. “He’s genuine. He’s raw.”

While many of the campaigns spoke of unity, Franzen said she can’t commit to supporting a Democrat in November.

“It depends on who it is,”she said. “I’m not blue only. It depends on who it is.”

But she won’t vote Trump.

“No. No, never,” Franzen said.

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