There’s a Tourist Epidemic at the Iowa Caucuses

"Where are the Iowans?"

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley waded through a crowd in Johnston, Iowa, Sunday, aiming to take selflies with voters and sign some stickers. “Where are you from?” he asked a couple.

“Nebraska,” replied the woman.

“And you?” he asked a young man next to her. “Colorado,” he replied.

“Nebraska, Colorado!” O’Malley exclaimed. “This is like being at the Democratic convention. Where are my Iowans? Iowans? Iowans?” he yelled out, calling for the actual voters who might play a role in pushing him to the presidency Monday night.

Indeed, more than half the roughly 35 people gathered on a front lawn in suburban Des Moines Sunday afternoon were not actually from Iowa. There was an AP history class of 13 girls from Cape Cod and their teacher; Anita, who refused to give her last name, from Oklahoma; Ann and Buddy Luce from Southlake, Texas; Rich and Angela Warwick from Kansas City, Missouri—plus the couple from Nebraska and the young man from Colorado.

Time was that the Iowa caucuses were hyper local affairs. Candidates who brought in out-of-town staff, as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean did in 2004, were targets of criticism. But the first-in-the-nation contest has become something of a tourist attraction this cycle, in part thanks to the celebrity of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. At every event, Republican or Democratic, the crowd ranks have swollen with tourists. The crowds have become such a problem for some candidates that events are ticketed and closed to non-Iowans. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, limited access to his canvassing events with supporters on Sunday.

They come for the fun, for the spectacle and because they feel left out. “By the time the campaign gets to us, the contest is usually over and we never get to see and hear from the candidates,” says Ann Luce, 63, who first came to Iowa in 2008 to help organize for John Edwards, but brought her husband back this year so they could both experience the caucuses. “Here, it’s amazing. You can see a dozen in a few days.” In the past day, the Luces had seen O’Malley, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton.

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Tom Martinelli, 28, flew to Iowa from Miami just to scope out candidates. “I’m excited to learn about real viable candidates who have a no-nonsense message,” Martinelli said at a Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul rally Friday in Knoxville, Ia. “I want to learn about guys and gals.

Aaron Campbell, 41, traveled down from the his hometown of Cable, Wisc., to see Sanders in Waterloo and volunteer for him around the state. “I like to come down this time of the year to the Super Bowl of politics, and canvass for different people,” he said. “This time it’s Bernie.”

His devotion to caucus tourism goes back more than a decade. “I was down here for Obama’s first election,” he said. “I was down here during the John Kerry years, I was one of the Howard Dean-orange-knit cap people. Then eventually I did some work for Kerry during the general. It’s very always very exciting to be here in the state at this time.”

The biggest draw for tourists, just like regular Iowa voters, has been Trump, whom the Warwicks, both Democrats, saw on Saturday. “It was a trip,” says Rich Warwick, 56. “I mean we had to go just see it.” And they aren’t the only ones.

Many of those in Trumps large, noisy crowds aren’t Iowans. “He tells it like it is. I like him because he’s young. He’s not old like Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. He’ll be around for both terms,” says Jeremy Dean, 39, a Milan, Ill., resident at a Trump rally on Saturday. Trump is 69 years old, one year older than Clinton and five years younger than Sanders.

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Trump has “been saying what we’re all thinking but can’t say it because it’s not politically correct. He doesn’t need the lobbyists’ money, he doesn’t need anyone’s money,” says Rebecca Kron, a resident of Moline, Ill., who joined the Trump event in Davenport.

Though out-of-state supporters can do very little to help Trump at the caucuses, down the road—if he chooses to take that road—they could prove helpful. After all, he’ll need lots of signatures to get on state ballots should he mount a third-party challenge.

–With reporting from Tessa Berenson in Knoxville, Iowa., Sam Frizell in Waterloo, Iowa, and Phil Elliott in Davenport and Dubuque, Iowa.

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