Iowans are nice, maybe too nice. Late last month, NEWSWEEK political blogger Andrew Romano followed Democratic candidate John Edwards into the Depot restaurant in Shenandoah, Iowa (home of the Everly Brothers), and saw a woman wearing an Edwards button. Are you a supporter? the reporter inquired. "That's just today," she responded. "Joe Biden was here earlier this week and I was wearing his buttons." So, Romano asked, it's between Biden and Edwards for you? "No, no, no," she said, shaking her head at the re-porter's innocence. "This is Iowa. I've even worn a Romney sticker."
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 subfreezing 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-current-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 percent of the vote at a local caucus to be considered "viable." If the votes fall short—entirely possible in a six- or seven-person field—then the caucusgoers 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. According to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Hillary Clinton is 20 points ahead of other candidates nationally, but if she doesn't win the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, her campaign could implode. The current polling in Iowa is far closer—Clinton leads Barack Obama and Edwards, but not by much—and, given past history and the fickleness, er, niceness, of Iowa voters, polls may not mean much anyway. 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. True, it is just about in the center of the country, the classic "heartland," and it 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: only one in 29 Iowans braves the cold to vote. But it has become, along with New Hampshire, state of the first primary, the traditional bellwether of American presidential politics. Though there is still an outside chance New Hampshire will leapfrog Iowa and hold its primary in December, it seems likely that the Hawkeye and Granite states will preserve their one-two punch.
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 on 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 Jan. 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 it seems Iowa will caucus on Jan. 3 and New Hampshire will vote on Jan. 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 H.W. Bush in 1980. But there will be almost no time to come back from a subpar 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 and $6 million, versus $3 million to $4 million 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 percent 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 GOP caucuses. But Mitt Romney, who's atop the polls in the state, has been pouring resources into Iowa, and Mike Huckabee is counting on the caucuses to vault him from the second tier to man-to-beat.
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's 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 Gov. 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 H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan and declared he had "the Big Mo." 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 Ft. 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?"
There is something heartwarming about watching elderly ladies scribbling notes while grilling candidates on the intricacies of agricultural policy. But there can be too much of a good thing. Iowa voters are used to being catered to, and they can be even more difficult to satisfy than a K Street lobbyist with high-polish shoes and a big expense account. "You've got to be pretty real to convince Iowans," says Phil Claeys, 58, a '60s flower child turned community organizer. "We're not in awe of anybody. We're in awe of the corn."
Iowans have learned how to "farm the government," as they say. The Hawkeyes stand first among 50 states in overall farm subsidies. Vilsack insists the caucuses play no role in this largesse, that Iowa's congressional delegation delivers the goods, but presidential candidates pander anyway. John McCain, Clinton and Fred Thompson all opposed subsidies for ethanol, the fuel made from corn, at some point during their Senate careers, but as presidential hopefuls, they are all at least vaguely pro-ethanol—citing, of course, the need for energy independence to protect national security.
Still, Iowa farmers are not satisfied. "These candidates come out and promise the world," says Linus Solberg, speaking to NEWSWEEK the week after he hosted a campaign event for Edwards in one of his barns. "But when they get back to Washington, it's business as usual." Though Edwards is trying to appeal to small farmers being pushed aside by giant agribusiness, Solberg, a hog farmer, complains that Edwards left quickly without shaking hands. "He'd been to four places already and was flying out for some union that was going to endorse him," says Solberg.
The Democrats have been dancing around the ticklish subject of immigration, trying to please Hispanics without offending Iowans who want tighter border controls and no social services for illegal immigrants. "They don't want to get into it because then people have to take one side or another," says Johnny Bautista, 21. "They're just kind of avoiding it." "We're just a pawn in their political game," says Rick Swanson, 48, owner of Sioux City's Chesterfield Friday Night Social Club, who complains that immigration "is just getting out of control."
Iowans deserve the first caucus because "they're hardworking people with a sense of responsibility," says Joni Vondrak, 39, who, with her husband, Chris, 39, raises cattle outside Sioux City. But neither she nor her husband plans to vote in the caucuses, because they doubt the results will make much difference. "As Iowa goes, the nation doesn't go," says Chris. Actually, the Iowa caucuses have predicted the parties' candidates about 60 percent of the time, which is why many presidential candidates spend so many months traveling those long, lonely roads.