Pauline McAreavy in her Iowa home. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Sanders or Trump? An Iowa heart -- and vote -- at stake

Williamsburg, Iowa, January 29, 2016 -- "If this is political, please hang up." That is how Pauline McAreavy, a feisty if diminutive 82-year-old from Iowa, answers the phone these days, including when I, who met her during the 2012 election, call to find out if she has made up her mind this time around.

Pauline's phone rings off the hook during election season -- four times during dinner one recent evening -- because she has the misfortune of appearing in both Democratic and Republican voter databases, having cast votes for candidates of both parties in the past.

That is also why I and the rest of the AFP team came calling on Pauline, one of the so-called swing voters at the center of the American political universe this week.

I first met her by chance in October 2012, as she swept her front stoop on a cul de sac in Williamsburg, a town of 3,175 people surrounded by farm fields.

It was just 10 days before the re-election of Barack Obama and Pauline vented her disappointment with the Democratic president, for whom she hosted volunteers in 2008, saying his promises of hope and change ultimately fell flat.

A poster of Donald Trump in an Iowa backyard. (AFP / Jim Watson)

"I was fooled. I kick myself every day," she told me back then. She ended up casting her vote for the Republican Mitt Romney.

Four years later, we are among the hundreds of journalists pouring into Iowa to cover the February 1 caucus. 

Part of what brings us here is a quest to understand why anti-establishment candidates like Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket, have become the rock stars of the primary season.

We are hoping Pauline can help set things straight.

'Anybody but Hillary'

We meet on a Saturday morning, as Pauline welcomes us into her spotless home. Outside, a pole is jabbed into the frozen ground, the Stars and Stripes fluttering from the top. Neighbors watch discretely. Muffins and coffee await in the kitchen.

Pauline recently lost her husband, but not her wry sense of humor.

"That's the only good thing about his dying, he can't vote! Isn't that terrible to say?" She and her husband argued tirelessly about politics, she confides fondly.

Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Pauline doesn't fit neatly into a political mold. She was a Democrat, like her parents before her, until Bill Clinton infamously met White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Then, she turned Republican. She loves the Bush family, but Obama brought her back into the Democratic fold, before driving her away again in 2012.

This year, it's still unclear which way she will bend. Iowa law allows her to wait until the day of the caucus to register with one or other party to take part in its nomination vote.

"I probably shouldn't say this with a camera, (but) I like what Trump says," she admits.

"I'm not sure the American people will ever vote for him, so I'm torn."

Americans are supporting Trump in droves at the moment. But Pauline, like many analysts, is unsure if that support will translate into votes.

Pauline McAreavy in her Iowa home. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Then, a revelation:

"If I switch over at the caucus and become Democrat, I'll definitely caucus for Sanders," she says. "Anybody but Hillary."

"I'm tired of politicians," she adds dejectedly.

Sanders and Trump, "I think they speak the truth," or at least "they feel they're telling the truth."

Pauline assumes that Trump, billionaire that he is, would revive the economy.

But what ultimately matters most to her is a candidate's integrity: "I look at the person and see if they're honest. And I think Trump is honest. Goofy, honest. And I think Sanders is honest."


Extrapolating from a single case is unwise, even a case as compelling as Pauline McAreavy.

But much of the anecdotal evidence we collect on the campaign trail points to voters from across the political spectrum rejecting establishment figures in favor of either Trump or Sanders -- a central theme in this strange election year.

A volunteer from the Sanders campaign in Washington told us last week that out of about 15 phone conversations with likely voters, three or four told him they are torn between Trump and Sanders.

A Republican student at a Sanders rally Sunday in Cedar Falls, Iowa also mentioned both men, although he prefers Trump. A New York Times analysis has confirmed the trend, showing that some of Trump's support is coming from Democrats in conservative states.

Many of the voters we speak to seem to have little grasp of the candidates' actual policies. Many have trouble recalling who they voted for in 2012.

But for the most part they sound less polarized than the candidates they will likely endorse.

A sign posted on an Iowa farm. (AFP / Jim Watson)

On values, Pauline says she is traditional but not inflexible.

"Very, very Catholic" is how she describes herself. She is against abortion, but also believes it to be a personal decision -- except for late-term abortions.

She opposes gay marriage, but still believes same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual ones.

She watches Fox News, the preferred news channel of Republicans, but also MSNBC, its progressive equivalent. She doesn't like CNN.

"So now I guess I'm a Republican," she chuckles. "I don't know. But everybody thinks I'm a Republican!"

Ivan Couronne is an AFP journalist based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ivan Couronne