Paul Simon Public Policy Institute

12.29.11 - Five myths about the Iowa caucuses

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By David Yepsen, Published: December 29

In the past seven months of the Republican presidential campaign, there have been more than a dozen debates and countless polls. Nearly every candidate has enjoyed the spotlight as a front-runner. But Tuesday, the nominating process kicks off in earnest as Iowans gather in schools, churches and neighbors’ homes to vote. Having covered caucus campaigns since 1976 for the Des Moines Register, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about Iowa voters and the state’s role in the race for the White House.

1. Iowa voters don’t represent the United States.

Americans like to deal in stereotypes. But not all New Yorkers are rude, not all San Franciscans are gay, and not all Iowans are farmers. Of Iowa’s 3 million people, about 90,000 are farmers, and of those, 48,737 list farming as a principal occupation. Iowa’s manufacturing and financial services industries contribute far more to the gross state product than does farming. So media caricatures of snaggle-toothed hicks from an “American Gothic” painting don’t fit.

The state is 91.3 percent white, while the country is 72.4 percent white. But these homogeneous demographics helped Barack Obama when he won the 2008 Democratic caucuses. His victory proved to a lot of people — especially African Americans he was courting — that he could attract white votes.

While small, Iowa is traditionally one of a half-dozen battleground states. In November 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, the Iowa popular vote closely tracked national preferences. Activists from each party attend caucuses, and they tend to be similar to the activists in their parties around the country. Among Democrats, that means lots of people who are pro-labor and antiwar, and many who are concerned with social justice. For Republicans, it’s social and fiscal conservatives, foreign policy hawks, Second Amendment conservatives and libertarians. The Iowans who show up on caucus night look a lot like the people on the floor of the national conventions.

2. Retail politics is king in Iowa.

The one-on-one retail politicking that marked earlier campaigns has gone the way of the corner store. The days when a candidate such as George H.W. Bush could bounce around Iowa in a station wagon with a driver, an aide and a reporter are gone. “Retail politicking” now includes messages on Web sites, social media posts and trips to Wal-Mart. Add in TV commercials, and politicking here looks more wholesale than retail.

Whenever America starts selecting a president, it’s a big story. Since technology has become cheaper and more portable, large groups of journalists now descend on Iowa and change the nature of the events they cover. Every reporter in Iowa these days has a story of showing up to an event where there were more media folks then caucus-goers. Gone are the days when journalists such as Johnny Apple, David Broder, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover would slip into the kitchen to hear what was happening in the living room.

Just as the heat of an observer’s eyeball through a microscope can change the performance of the specimen below, so, too, has media heat changed retail politics. A candidate’s every word is flashed around the world, critiqued on cable news outlets, blogs and Twitter. No more does a candidate get to munch on lemon bars with a dozen locals to try out messaging and ideas.

3. To win, you need to appeal to right-wing activists.

Ultra-conservatives are an important constituency in the Republican Party, just as left-wing liberals are important to Democrats. But hard-liners are not the whole game in either party. For example, an October Des Moines Register Iowa Poll reported that only 45 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers described themselves as very conservative on social issues. Even among such voters, issues such as jobs and the economy are often more important than abortion and same-sex marriage.

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