Anxiety and Depression at the Iowa Caucus

NOTE: This is part of a longform series documenting my experiences on the 2020 Campaign Trail. Subscribe for more updates:



Milan, IL — Marijuana, in both Indiana and Iowa, is illegal, with simple possession punishable by up to six months in jail. But in Illinois, the state separating Iowa from Indiana, it is legal, as of January 1, 2020, to buy, sell, possess and ingest cannabis. As someone who has on occasion used the plant, in small doses, to treat anxiety and depression, I was not about to pass up the opportunity to buy as much marijuana as I could carry without becoming a felon when I crossed the border.

I had visited dispensaries before, in Colorado, Washington and most recently Michigan, and so when I pulled into Nature’s Treatment, the dispensary in Milan, just outside Rock Island, I had expected an urban, youthful atmosphere. Nose rings and ironic beards. It wasn’t that.

Nature’s Treatment looked like an urgent care mistakenly opened in a sparse industrial district between a beer distribution warehouse and a John Deere parts center. It opened at 8 AM, three hours earlier than its competition in Champaign, home to the University of Illinois. The nearest thing to a university around Milan, a literal “village,” was Eastern Iowa Community College in Davenport. Not a party school.

The waiting room was full — I had expected that. But the crowd. The place was filled with Carhart jackets and steel-toed work boots; men and women in hooded sweatshirts and loose-fitting jeans; John Deere logo everywhere. The Quad Cities aren’t known as the “Farm Implementation Capital of the World” for nothing.

There were only a few people under age 30, and strikingly, not a single Bob Marley shirt. Not one!

I had never seen this crowd at a dispensary, but I had seen it before here in the Quad Cities. At a Bernie Sanders rally in Davenport back in April. I remember being in the media corral, behind a metal gate, and watching two guys, one in a sleeveless denim shirt, the other a black Harley Davidson tee, whistle and high-five when Sanders said he’d legalize marijuana. “Non-traditional” was how I described the crowd, meaning unlike any I’d seen Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke or John Hickenlooper draw in the Quad Cities. Only Sanders attracted the type of blue-collar people you might see at, say, a Lynrd Skyrnd concert. Or a Donald Trump rally.

The menu at Nature’s Treatment was also non-traditional. No “flower” for sale. Demand was so high that Illinois had practically run dry. Still, the number of options was overwhelming. At home, I could either buy what my guy happened to be selling at the time, or not get stoned. Nature’s Treatment had choices. If you wanted to inhale it: four different kinds of vape cartridges; if you wanted to swallow it: six or seven types of edibles; for pain relief, there was a topical cream. They even had lavender soaking salts, for those who don’t share a tub with their children’s bath toys.

It was a lot like the decision Iowans would be facing in less than 72-hours.

Just like Iowans on caucus night, I came into the process with preferences. I knew wanted a cartridge, sativa-dominant that would hit immediately, with a euphoric kick to get me going in the morning. Something that would boost creativity and improve focus without inducing panic or paranoia. I wanted all of the good and no risk of the bad. According to the clerk, that was an impossible ask, but my best options were 1) Clementine (Elizabeth Warren) — high energy and heady, perfect for solving the world’s problems while you organize your sock drawer; or 2) Colombian Haze (Bernie Sanders) — a potent, uplifting hybrid known to stoke optimism and arousal. Both were great to wake-and-bake, with side effects including dry eyes, dry mouth and, yes, the potential for (right-wing) paranoia and (stock market) panic.

Unable to choose, I bought both, an option Iowans would not have on Monday night.

I also wanted a strain to chill me out at night, lock me to the couch, relax my mind and gently lull me to sleep — a “Pete Buttigieg.” I contemplated the lavender salts, but the $60 price tag was a lot for something I had no experience with. What if it didn’t work? What if it did? Seemed like a drowning hazard. Instead, I settled for a tin of 5mg Indica mints with a 1:1 CBD/THC ratio. The CBD would negate any of the psychotropic effects while mixing with the THC to promote unproductive relaxation. The clerk referred to the mints as “medicinal,” which made me think “clinical,” and nobody in the field exemplifies “coldly detached” like Buttigieg.

Having paid, about to leave, I scanned the menu one last time. There it was. The “Joe Biden.”

“How’s the cannabis-infused oatmeal?” I asked.

The clerk shrugged. “We used to sell weed-infused honey you could drizzle on it,” she said. “But we don’t have that anymore.”


Des Moines, Iowa — I crossed into Iowa a criminal, my receipt of legal purchase in Illinois now evidence of an ongoing misdemeanor. I was about a half-hour outside Des Moines, filling up the tank of my rental car, when I saw a rumor on Twitter that a drunk Biden staffer had jerked-off a Pete Buttigieg supporter on a flight from D.C. into Iowa. I laughed, my breath visible in the air. And they say Democrats are divided.

Later, while picking up my media credential at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, I was chastened — in my capacity as “representative of the media” — by an older woman organizing a climate change parade. She was mad at the press for the lack of coverage that was dooming our planet and its ecosystems, and I told her I agreed completely and promised to visit the following day during the parade so that I could take I could take my medicine with the rest of the goddamn monsters. She thanked me and went looking for someone else to shout at.

It wasn’t the first time on the campaign trail I’d been taken for a “real” member of the media, and I never failed to get a kick out of pretending to shiv my own.

I had to admit there was a weird inner-dichotomy: The most uncomfortable I’ve been on the campaign trail was standing in a roped-off section of a gymnasium, PRESS lanyard around my neck. And yet, here I was, feeling that familiar swell of self-importance as I pocketed my credentials. I had even RSVP’d to “Raucous Before the Caucus,” an “invite-only” business casual networking affair for media persons that night.

At home with our kids, my spouse was particularly excited about the “networking,” which she thought might equate to “money.” She’d sent me out with the credit card and a handful Kohl’s Cash for a haircut and new men’s dress shirt, and insisted I bring my “wedding shoes,” a pair of nice leather I’d bought for a friend’s wedding and never worn again.

The moment I tried squeezing into the wedding shoes back in the hotel, I knew I wouldn’t be going to “Raucous Before the Caucus.” Schmoze with the media? Sip free cocktails and nip hors d’oeuvres in an itchy shirt and stiff shoes? Or listen to candidates and speak with voters? Assess the viability of our democracy? Wedding shoes off, Nikes on.

The only candidates events around Des Moines that night were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg was out in Davenport, wooing the Clinton coalition, the one that powered her to a point-and-a-half victory over Trump in Scott County in 2016. Joe Biden had called it quits for the day after a 2 PM event in Fort Madison.

Sanders was supposed to be in Clive, a suburb one mile west of Des Moines, but he was stuck in Washington for Trump’s-impeachment trial. It was assumed he wouldn’t speak in person and would rely instead on surrogates like filmmaker Michael Moore and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, as well as Democratic congresswomen Pramila Jaypal, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, collectively referred to in the media as “The Squad.”

Also stuck in Washington, Elizabeth Warren had dispatched her own lineup of surrogates, including Reps. Katie Porter and Ayanna Pressley. But unlike Sanders, whose campaign slogan literally excused his absence (“Not me. Us.”), Warren was the rock star of her own show (“I have a plan for that!”). So there was a chance she might just make the evening flight back to Iowa for the rally.

Warren it was. The event was in the East Village, a trendy mile-long downtown corridor of restaurants and shops near the Iowa State Capitol. Curate was the venue, a 6,000 square-foot event hall resembling an “art gallery,” with urban-chic concrete floors and exposed ductwork. I stuck my bag and coat behind the press area ropes and headed into the crowd of nearly 700.

Among all the major contenders, Warren’s candidacy, and thus her supporters, were the most difficult to define. I’d eaten dinner that night at Zombie Burger, a booths-and-barstools burger joint with a post-apocalyptic theme. The restaurant had been offering a 2020 Iowa Caucus daily special, featuring the “Bloomburger” (fried lobster w/truffle butter), the “McYang Gang (a whole breast of chicken set between two cheeseburgers), and the “99% Blockage,” a Bernie Sanders double-entendre (bacon, onion rings and maple syrup on a donut hole bun).

That night’s special was the “The Wine-Cave Diet” — braised short rib, truffle cheese and fried escargot with a demi glaze — clearly a reference to Buttigieg’s high-dollar fundraising efforts, which had been exposed on the debate stage by Elizabeth Warren.

As for Warren, her special was “Drinking with Liz,” a combination of Miller Light braised pork belly, Bud Light battered onion rings, Coors Light cheese sauce and Michelob Ultra BBQ sauce. It sounded delicious, but left me perplexed — was Warren really the domestic beer, cheese-sauce-on-pork fat candidate?

After mixing with her crowd on the gallery floor of Curate,a smiling, friendly bunch defined by their straight teeth and parted hair, North Face jackets and slim-fit turtlenecks, I would suggest “No.” At one point, the song “These Boots Are Made For Walking” came on — the Nancy Sinatra version — and my eyes unconsciously went to the crowd’s footwear.

There was an Iowa-in-February amount of boots: fur-lined snow galoshes; stylish leather brogans; spotless hiking stompers; knee-highs; high-heeled; leopard print and deerskin. There were no actual work boots, though, not a dirty pair of steel-toes in the entire crowd.

I struck up a conversation with a man named Jeff in brown dress shoes and a green cashmere scarf over a blue t-shirt that read: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican.” Jeff said he’d lived all over the world, but currently resided in the affluent, highly-educated suburb of West Des Moines.

West Des Moines is home to the only Whole Foods in Iowa, which is a statistically significant indicator of its potential political leanings: In the 2016 Presidential Election, Trump won just 22% of U.S. counties with a Whole Foods, and in the 2018 midterms, the majority of the 41 Democrat-flipped seats in the U.S. House of Representatives came from districts with the trendy health market nearby. Win the suburbs, win the election, so one theory goes.

Jeff told me that after a lengthy tire-kicking process, he’d committed to caucusing for Warren, drawn by her intellect, backbone, and the fact that she was much more “aware” and “sharp-witted” than some of the “pretenders in the race.”

I made the mistake of assuming his decision was ideological-based, and had come down to Warren or Sanders. He was quick to correct me. “Bernie was a go-no when he lied to me in February of 2016, here at the State Fairgrounds.”

Jeff explained that at an event before the 2016 Iowa Caucus, Sanders had personally told him that he would release his past year’s tax returns within two weeks, but never did. Jeff hadn’t forgotten. “When we’re standing this close, and you lie to me…”

(I went back an Googled Jeff’s claims, and it seems he’s right: Sanders never released his 2015 tax returns during the ’16 campaign. He did, however, release 10-years of tax returns this past April showing that he and his wife, Jane, had an adjusted gross income of $561,293 in 2018).

Jeff had opinions about other candidates. “Uncle Joe,” he said, with a small shake of his head. “A little too long in the tooth, and a little too old in his ideas.” Buttigieg was “insincere and untested,” with “no substance“ and “issues dealing with people of color.”

Because of the nature of the Iowa caucuses, participants are expected to have a second-choice candidate, just in case their first option doesn’t reach the 15% viability threshold at the caucus location. When that happens, supporters of non-viable candidates back someone different — or nobody. If Bernie was “no-go” and Biden and Buttigieg were “pretenders,” was Jeff a Warren-or-Bust guy?

“Oh, I’ll vote for whoever the nominee is,” he said, prefacing that he had no concerns about Warren being viable in his West Des Moines precinct. “Disengaging is sheer stupidity. You want to complain about something, and I ask if you voted in the last election and you say ‘no?’ Get the hell out of my face, because you just volunteered to be kicked to the curb.”

I was comforted by Jeff’s perspective, and I hung around watching Warren’s surrogates for awhile, but when it was announced that she wouldn’t make it to the event, I called it a night. I had some pot oatmeal to sample in the morning.

Twitter: @IowaCaucus2020


Christopher Rex is a freelance journalist based out of Indianapolis, IN. Follow: @RexJournal

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