Why Are the Candidates Suddenly Treating Iowa Like a Battleground State?

(Charlie Neibergall / AP)

If you'd fallen asleep on Nov. 2, 2004 and awoken, a la Rip Van Winkle, on Oct. 31, 2008, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Iowa is a battleground state. For starters, it flipped from blue to red in 2004. So you'd assume it could swing again. Then you'd check the papers. "Obama Rallies 25,000 is Des Moines" one headline would read; "McCain Chief Claims Iowa 'Dead-Even,'" would read another. At that point, you'd be crazy not to conclude that the Hawkeye State is, yet again, too close to call.

The only problem? It's not.

Or at least there's not a single shred of scientific evidence that it is. On Jan. 3, the Hawkeye State caucuses catapulted Obama into contention and nearly torpedoed McCain, who committed the cardinal Corn Belt sin of opposing ethanol subsidies. So it's long been clear which candidate Iowans prefer. Since July 10, only four polls--out of nearly 20--have shown Obama leading McCain by less than 10 points. Of those, only one has shown Obama garnering less than 50 percent of the vote. That poll--the Big10 Battleground survey taken from Sept. 14 to Sept. 17--has since been replaced by an Oct. 19-22 sounding from the same firm. It shows Obama clobbering McCain by 13 points, 52 percent to 39 percent. At RealClear Politics, Obama's average lead currently stands at 11 percent--which is larger than McCain's margins in Montana, Georgia, North Dakota, Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia. The electoral projection site FiveThirtyEight.com gives Obama a 100 percent chance of winning Iowa. Not 90 or 95. One hundred.

Still, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis insisted on a conference call with reporters this morning that "our own data has us dead even in the state of Iowa."

So what gives? Was the last month of public polling off by 10 to 15 points? Is McCain pollster Bill McInturff the only person in the country who knows how to survey Iowa's elusive electorate? My hunch is no. First of all, it's worth noting that losing campaigns always say that their "internal polling" shows a "dead heat" in the days before an election. They also, when pressed, always refuse to share any actual statistics--just like Davis did this morning. The truth is, the battle over Iowa is no longer electoral. It's symbolic.

Notice the timing of Davis's "dead even" assertion: the day that Obama is visiting Iowa for the first time in two months. The point was to frame Obama's trip as a defensive maneuver--an admission that the race is tightening. In fact, Davis even claimed on this morning's conference call that "the Obama campaign's data was also close in Iowa"--even though Obama sources say that their internal polling shows a "double-digit" advantage. In other words, Davis isn't really making a reality-based argument. Instead, he's sending a message meant to mobilize supporters: Don't be discouraged by the public polls. Believe that McCain is tied--even where he's trailing by 11 points. And act (vote, volunteer, etc.) accordingly. He's simply seizing on Obama's presence in Des Moines as proof that, behind the campaign curtain, this is much closer race than it appears. If McCain isn't really losing by double-digits in Iowa, Davis is saying, how can you be sure he's losing anywhere?

Given that Davis's approach relies more on faith than facts, we won't know for sure whether he's wrong or right until the actual results start rolling in. For its part, however, the Obama campaign is spinning the senator's return to Iowa as a sign of confidence, not nervousness. The candidate canceled an earlier Iowa trip so he could visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii, they say. So we rescheduled for Halloween out of convenience: he's planning to trick-or-treat with his daughters in neighboring Illinois this afternoon. But there's also the explanation--as my colleague Richard Wolffe reports--that Team Obama "savors the symbolism of returning to its roots" (Obama also swung through Des Moines the night he won a majority of Democratic delegates). In that reading, today's visit is a sign that the race is coming to a close--not that McCain is coming back.

Judging by all the available evidence, I'd put more stock in Obama's spin than McCain's. But as always, the only polls that matter are the ones that close on Election Night. Somebody wake me up when it's over.