Quest for the White House

Thursday is a critically important date in the 2008 US presidential race, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe look at Iowa’s history as a graveyard for front runners and a launching pad for long shots.

PITY the presidential candidates who spend many millions of dollars and months crisscrossing Iowa’s thinly-populated landscape searching for supporters. Jimmy Carter, the first candidate to exploit Iowa, sometimes left notes on the doors of empty farmhouses saying he’d dropped by. The contenders are prospecting for those few hardy souls who will go out in sub-freezing temperatures on a January night and spend two or three hours in the local high-school auditorium casting — and then, sometimes changing — their votes.

“In Iowa, people are so nice they’ll tell you they’ll support you, but then they don’t show up,” says Wally Horn, the longest-serving Democratic state senator in Iowa. Even if they do, sometimes the bargaining is just beginning. Under the Democrats’ rules in Iowa, a candidate must collect at least 15% of the vote at a local caucus (party meeting) to be considered “viable”. If the votes fall short — entirely possible in a six or seven-person field — then the caucus-goers can switch their votes to another candidate, setting off a hectic round of horse trading and arm twisting and turning close contests into sudden runaways.

It’s all arcane and confusing — and critically important to the 2008 presidential race.

In 2004, Howard Dean looked strong in Iowa. He seemed to have plenty of money and he had flooded the state with “Deaniacs”, young and zealous supporters who knocked on every door and got out the vote. But on caucus night, the front-runner finished third and was reduced to the primal “scream”, his candidacy’s last yelp.

Iowa is an odd place to anoint as kingmaker (or kingbreaker) in the race for presidential nominations. It is just about in the centre of the country, the classic “heartland” and is fairly well-balanced between liberals and conservatives. But it is notably older and whiter than the rest of the country and its voters sometimes demand a level of pandering that is embarrassing even to politicians who know little shame. Its baroque caucus system is not very democratic with only one in 29 Iowans braving the cold to vote. But it has become, along with New Hampshire, state of the first primary, the traditional bellwether of US presidential politics.

For years, other bigger, more representative states have suffered from early-nominating contest envy. This time around, many big states, including Florida and Michigan, California and New Jersey, pushed their primary dates up the calendar. The scrambling and jostling was slightly ridiculous, if not unseemly — the Democratic National Committee warned Florida it would not seat the state delegates at this summer’s national convention if Florida persisted in moving its primary date to January 29 (it did it anyway, figuring an early primary would give the state more clout). For all the desperate jockeying, the net result may have been, ironically, to magnify the power of Iowa and New Hampshire. There once was a time when Iowa caucused a good month before New Hampshire’s primary and New Hampshire came three weeks before the rest. Now Iowa will caucus on January 3 and New Hampshire will vote on January 8 — just before Michigan votes on the 15th and Nevada caucuses on the 19th.

When a candidate had 30 days, he could recover from defeat in Iowa, just as Ronald Reagan did after an upset loss to George HW Bush in 1980. But there will be almost no time to come back from a sub-par showing in Iowa in 2008 — potentially creating a catapult or slingshot effect.

The candidates are well aware of Iowa’s significance. According to The Wall Street Journal, the three leading Democrats — Clinton, Obama and Edwards — have spent twice as much money in Iowa as in New Hampshire, and far more than in any other early-voting state. Clinton has opened 25 offices in Iowa and has at least 117 staffers there. Obama has spent more than Clinton — between $5 million (€3.4m) and $6m , versus $3m to $4m for Clinton. Obama has opened 33 field offices and is targeting 17-year-olds who can caucus if they turn 18 by Election Day ‘08. (The youth vote may be a false beacon for Obama: The average Iowa voter is in his or her 50s.) Obama is strong in Iowa’s small black community (less than 2% of Iowa’s voters), though Flora Lee, Sioux City president of the NAACP, has heard black voters at dinner parties gloomily say; “Well, he’s black, he’ll get assassinated.” The less well-financed Edwards has toured all 99 counties and has been working the state almost nonstop since 2004.

The Republicans are investing less in Iowa. The national front runner, Rudy Giuliani, has all but written off the state — he is not likely to do well among the evangelicals who dominate the Grande Old Party (GOP) caucuses.

All the candidates know the history of Iowa as a graveyard for front runners and a launching pad for long shots. George McGovern led the way. The anti-Vietnam War candidate didn’t win Iowa in 1972, but his surprising second-place finish to front runner Ed Muskie shook up the race. (Muskie was the only presidential candidate who won in Iowa and New Hampshire, only to lose the nomination.) The press began looking at Iowa as a harbinger. When ABC’s Bill Lawrence said Muskie’s campaign almost ran off an icy road in Iowa, reporters began sensing that the Democrats’ establishment candidate was vulnerable in New Hampshire.

In 1975, the then obscure Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter wandered the state, introducing himself by saying; “Hi, I’m not a lawyer and I’m not from Washington.” Carter didn’t attract much attention at first. Steve Hansen, now director of the Sioux City Public Museum, recalls walking by his college cafeteria and seeing candidate Carter sitting alone. Hansen turned to a friend and asked; “Should we stop in? He looks kind of lonely.” Carter’s low-paid guerrilla staffers rigged straw polls, stacked political dinners and wooed national reporters. Carter’s media man, Jerry Rafshoon, mortgaged his house to buy ads. It’s now forgotten that Carter came in second to “Uncommitted” in the caucuses, but he beat everyone else in a crowded field and was on his way.

In 1980, George HW Bush defeated Ronald Reagan and declared he had “the Big Mo” (momentum). The Big Mo fizzled by New Hampshire, but his strong showing on the campaign trail helped Bush secure the second spot on the GOP ticket. Dean’s flameout in 2004 holds several lessons. Dean thought he had created the “perfect storm” going into Iowa, a Netroots-generated youth revolution that would flood the state in bright yellow school buses. But the out-of-town kids wearing orange caps were regarded as aliens by Iowans. At the same time, Dean got caught up in a negative ad war with Dick Gephardt. Their wrestling match turned into a suicide pact in Iowa, which really does value “niceness”. Dean thought he had lined up the Democratic establishment by winning union support. On one late swing, the government workers union insisted Dean campaign for votes at a correctional facility near Fort Dodge. Their goal was to win over prison guards, but it looked like Dean was stumping for votes among criminals.

Iowa does have one great virtue over the big primary states: the candidates actually meet voters at diners and farms and in their homes. In the large states, voters are reached wholesale, through media events and slick ads. Campaigning in Iowa is still mostly retail. “Someone has got to start this process and the question is: do you want to start it in California or New York, where ... the media plays a disproportionate role?” asks former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack in an interview with Newsweek. “Or do you want to start it in a place where these candidates have to visit with real voters for extended periods of time, answer questions that haven’t been covered in the press and can create these surprising moments?”

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