Blow dryers hum. Electric razors buzz. Steam rolls off strands of hair as they glide through a hot flat iron. This is the scene, on a brisk Saturday morning, at Tranzitions Salon & Beauty Bar in Des Moines, Iowa. A place where black women convene to talk beauty, business and, sometimes, politics.
The Hawkeye State is preparing for what the Iowa Democratic Party predicts will be record turnout at this year’s presidential nominating caucus on Monday.
But, some black women say they may sit this one out.
“I’m not sure if I’ll caucus this year,” 63-year old Cheryl Barnes told NBC News. “Because I’m not sure about the candidates yet.”
Brandy McCracken, a 42-year-old Democrat, echoed that sentiment. “It will basically come down to me finding time to caucus — if there’s someone that interests me.”
These women are not alone in their indecision. The latest Iowa poll shows only 40 percent of likely caucusgoers have picked a candidate. However, what may distinguish this group is why they remain largely undecided.
While black women, including Barnes and McCracken, turned out in droves to help secure a caucus win for Barack Obama in 2008, some say this time around they feel left out of the special treatment that comes with being a voter in the state up first in the presidential nominating process.
“They’re reaching out more to the rural areas of Iowa than they are in Des Moines to me,” said 61-year-old Kim McCracken-Smith. “And in rural Iowa, there’s no black people.”
Obama’s historic win in Iowa in 2008 came with his managing to pick up key delegates in rural Iowa while also winning counties in the state where voters of color are concentrated.
African Americans make up only about about 4 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But with such a large field of candidates heading into caucus night, community activists say every vote this year will matter.
“Those are the kind of percentages that get you over the hump when it’s close, and it’s going to be close in a lot of places,” Izaah Knox, executive director of Urban Dreams, a community organization in Des Moines, told NBC News.
While campaigns have worked to replicate Obama’s diverse coalition of voters — with many hiring outreach directors tasked with targeting specific communities — that hasn’t been enough to win over some black caucusgoers.
Some potential caucusgoers said the outreach they’ve received has seemed rote and impersonal.
“I’ve just been getting these generic text messages and calls that I know are just the standard they’re reading off of the paper,” TranZitions salon owner Tyechia Daye said. “Come and see us — if you want our votes.”
Some candidates have made the effort to actively seek out black voters at local businesses and churches.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey hosted an event at Platinum Kutz, a black-owned barber shop in Des Moines, before he exited the race.
Of the remaining candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden is the only one to visit Corinthian Baptist Church, a cornerstone of the black community in Iowa’s capital city.
Having candidates go directly to the black community has been a goal of Knox’s organization. He said there have been more candidate appearances this election cycle than in the past. But the timing of such events can conflict with when potential caucusgoers are available.
“It’s hard to shift responsibilities around work or kids or house or whatever it is to get to these things,” Knox said. “But in Iowa we have to take it serious.”
Urban Dreams has co-hosted block parties with 12 of the presidential candidates.
But Daye said that as a busy small-business owner, she needs to be given a good reason to go to such events.
“Tell me why I should join you,” she said. “My time is money.”
Engaging people like Daye in the political process is a challenge of fundamental importance in a state like Iowa where the unemployment rate for blacks is more than double that of whites, according to recent figures from the Iowa Data Center.
But it’s up to candidates to reach them, said Nikol Alexander-Floyd, political science professor at Rutgers University.
“The responsibility of people who want to be elected is to meet people where they are,” Alexander-Floyd said.
Now, on the eve of the caucus, some political activists worry a lack of excitement among black women in the state could be a sign of trouble for the Democratic Party.
“That may be what black women are thinking in other places where we need high turnout in order to win,” said Aimee Allison. “And that’s got me nervous.”
Alison is the founder of She the People, a progressive national network focused on engaging women of color at all levels of the political process.
“If there’s a lack of motivation in a primary, it translates to low voter turnout” in the general election, Allison said. “We already know what it looks like” from what happened in 2016.
Fears of a defeat in 2020 are not lost upon black Democrats in Iowa. Still, it remains to be seen which candidate — if any — black women will show up for on caucus day.