Iowa Caucus Collection

Jan 18, 2016

As Iowans ponder their favorite candidate in the nation's first test of presidential contenders, a curious collection of political memorabilia is being assembled in Des Moines. The goal is to preserve the history of Iowa’s caucuses. 

For 44 years, more than 100 presidential hopefuls have tried to win the Iowa caucuses; their story is being amassed by curator Hope Grebner.

"We are actually inside the climate controlled storage area at the Drake University archives in Cowles Library."

Archivist Hope Grebner holds a packet of Jimmy Carter peanuts.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

These archival chambers already house the political lives of Governor Ray, Senator Harkin and Congressman Neal Smith, and are now home for the Iowa Caucus Collection. Since first soliciting souvenirs from the public last summer, more than 500 candidate keepsakes have poured in; from a commonplace Obama baseball cap and debate tickets, to a rare packet of Jimmy Carter peanuts and a signature Lamar Alexander flannel shirt. Rachel Paine Caufield is with Drake's Political Science Department.

"We're at a point now where there's a generation of Iowans who were there at the birth of the Iowa caucus and they're now at a point in their lives where they're beginning to clean out attics, and garages and basements and they have all these materials and mementos from their life as political activists and so it seemed like a really good time to start the collection."

Most of the collection is in boxes, although a sample exhibit displays some of the in-house treasures. Just above the Fred Karger Frisbee is a 1987 letter to an Iowa City voter in which Bruce Babbitt explains his experimentation with marijuana. Saying it was common in the 1960s, and "I've learned from the mistake." The Iowa Caucus Collection intersects with audio recordings in the archives of the Harkin Institute. This political ad is from the 1988 campaign.

"You want somebody to drink with? Call your buddy. You care about your job? Vote for Mike Dukakis."

Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Another audio clip, from Senator Harkin's own caucus appearance in 1992, recounts the controversy over two words he spoke on the campaign trail; the full version of B.S. Former NPR political reporter Ira Glass attended a bewildering welcome for the favorite son in Dubuque.

"Sunday morning he entered one rally greeted with an unusual standing ovation; supporters cheering him with the controversial word."

In the future, the Caucus Collection may have its own audio component, including oral history interviews. But first, archivist Hope Grebner says she is focused on acquiring the remaining traces of caucuses past.  

"So right now we're trying to play catch up you know, to get back to the past 40 years to kind of get our hands around all the things from the past and then we're hoping, you know, February 2 nd we're going to start seeing a lot of things from this election cycle coming in."

Rachel Paine Caufield with her Mitt Romney catcher's mitt.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Political junkie Rachael Paine Caufield, who donated a foam rubber Mitt Romney catcher's mitt, considers relics like these more than mere trinkets.

"When you're an Iowa voter and you go to these events and when somebody gives you a pin or gives you a cup or a T-shirt that says 'I'm a precinct captain for Howard Dean,' right, it gives you a sense of belonging to the campaign. That's one of the ways that campaigns reach out to activists. That's what grassroots politics is all about." 

The State Historical Museum is showing its own assortment of political memorabilia, but the emerging collection at Drake is the only depository dedicated exclusively to the Iowa caucuses. The Drake exhibit is open to the public through the end of February. In Des Moines, I'm Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.