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DES MOINES — I was in a tree.
It was November and I had been in Iowa for less than a month, living there to be The New York Times’s eyes and ears on the ground in the critical run-up to the Iowa caucuses. During one of my first weeks there, I set out to write a profile on an interesting person with political clout who would help bring Iowa to life for our readers. Rob Sand, the state auditor, pitched himself as a subject — and then took me bowhunting for deer.
Bowhunting would involve climbing a tree and then waiting in a tree stand for a deer to come into view. I didn’t know this. There would be little talking because deer hunting involves being very quiet. I also didn’t know this.
About an hour in, as my fingers and toes lost feeling in the cold and we both stood silently in the tree, I thought: What am I doing here?
As a political reporter for The Times, I am used to traveling across the country to speak to voters and observe candidates on the campaign trail. But those stays don’t usually last much longer than several days at a time.
So this was a question I sometimes asked myself during my three-month stint in Iowa, especially on long drives in snowstorms between events in rural parts of the state. That was not something I learned how to do growing up in Southern California.
I still don’t have the best answer, but here is what I know: My goal was to understand Iowa — the people who live here and the issues they care about — in addition to the presidential candidates who spend a good part of their time and resources in the state and the web of volunteers, staff members and strategists who help them.
I spent many of my days attending campaign events in high school gymnasiums and college auditoriums and senior centers, analyzing the candidates’ messages and talking to voters to see whether those messages were resonating. I also spent a good deal of time getting coffee or drinks or meals with people — campaign staff members, Iowa experts and sometimes Iowans I met along the way.
I drove thousands of miles in my rented Chevy Equinox. I wrote thousands of words sitting at the table in my rented apartment.
I learned that many Democrats here want above all to beat President Trump — a desire that made it extraordinarily difficult for them to choose a candidate. Some Republicans and independents wanted that, too.
I learned that campaign events all have different vibes. Town hall events for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., for instance, are lively and fun and all last about exactly the same amount of time (less than an hour). Events for Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, can be powerfully emotional for people in the audience, many of whom share their experiences with a system they and Mr. Sanders view as broken.
I learned that cars with all-wheel drive can still fishtail in the snow and that pizza from Casey’s General Store is delicious. (But no, I did not try the breakfast pizza, a particularly polarizing Iowa delicacy.)
It might be more practical, and less expensive, for The Times and other news organizations not to move reporters out to Iowa before the caucuses. But there is no substitute for spending a lot of time here, talking to Iowans every day and experiencing the all-consuming nature of the run-up to the state’s caucuses firsthand.
A veteran political reporter for The Times, Adam Nagourney, told me when I got here to try to eat dinner with someone every night as part of my fact-finding mission, but also because it would make the experience less lonely. I followed his advice, and he was right.
An editor once referred to this as my “Iowa tour of duty.” It was definitely much easier than being deployed, but I will say I am happy to be going home, even if it’s just for a few nights before I am sent out on the trail again.
And before you ask, yes, I did get myself a warm winter jacket.
And no, I don’t know who is going to win.
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