For activists here, Iowa's the field of dreams
DES MOINES -- Iowa's total immersion in presidential politics presents itself at every turn -- from the "Bill Clinton for First Lady" T-shirts for sale at the Des Moines Airport to the presence of candidates in virtually every corner of the capital city on the same evening.
The Des Moines Register editorial board has interviewed each candidate from both major parties once. They've spoken with some twice, enjoying a level of access that not even the New York Times or Washington Post could command.
And throughout Iowa, rubbing shoulders with those who aspire to the Oval Office is not a privilege reserved for the media, although candidates do court journalists and saturate the airwaves with ads. The presidential hopefuls know the only way to win Iowa's first-in-the-nation preference vote is to talk face to face with voters. That's what Iowans have come to expect.
Iowans routinely report having met most or all of the candidates.
Discussing entitlement reform, West Des Moines businessman Brian Gongol casually mentioned, "I asked John McCain about that just this evening." Had he not been questioning McCain in a West Des Moines restaurant Wednesday, Gongol could have been soaking up John Edwards' stump speech at a Des Moines middle school, preceded by actor Tim Robbins' introduction. Or meeting Republican hopeful Ron Paul at the state fairgrounds.
Or, he could have chatted with actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson after his televised debate performance.
It's this simple: The road to the White House begins in Iowa and typically hinges on success here. That helps explain why suburban activists are willing to invest weekends driving hours each way to canvass small-town Iowa neighborhoods in sub-freezing weather. It explains, too, why young, politically active people who grew up in Chicago's suburbs and now attend college in Iowa think they've hit the jackpot.
Nate Koppel, a Naperville North graduate and senior majoring in politics and philosophy here at Drake University, has immersed himself in the state's unique opportunity for political involvement. But even he says the relentless recruitment efforts by presidential candidates can become "overwhelming."
In Illinois, legislators this year bumped the state's primary from mid-March to Feb. 5 -- a move that will give suburban voters a presidential nomination voice for the first time in recent memory. But a little time spent in Iowa demonstrates the vast difference between a state voting early and a state voting first -- much wider than the breadth of the river separating the two states.
With Illinois in play on Feb. 5, candidates will stop in the Chicago area. Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani showed up on the same day last week. More will follow.
But in Iowa, candidates devote months focusing almost exclusively on the state. By the Washington Post's count, John Edwards' campaign, for instance, has conducted 224 events in Iowa since January. While Illinois has been host to 94 presidential campaign events this year, its neighbor to the west, with roughly a quarter of Illinois' population, has hosted more than 1,800.
The candidates themselves do not, of course, show up at every rally or tenderloin fry. But they do interact directly with voters at a personal level that occurs nowhere else except New Hampshire, whose 2008 primary will follow the Iowa caucuses by five days.
Outside of Iowa, Americans continue to debate whether residents of Iowa or New Hampshire merit their lofty status. Even many in Iowa acknowledge that there's no single compelling reason that they should lead off the nation's nomination process.
But as Randy Weigand, a Drake junior and Wheaton Warrenville South graduate, points out, Iowa features what many states do not: a roughly 50-50 balance between Republicans and Democrats. For the opening act of the nominating race, Weigand says, "you've got to have a state where both sides will work hard and want to spend their time and money."
Rachel Caufield, a Drake associate professor of politics and international relations who moved to Iowa six years ago, says outsiders sell Iowans short.
Iowans use their heavy exposure to ask increasingly sophisticated questions that demand increasingly detailed replies from candidates, Caufield says. And, she notes, Iowa has a reputation for good government, partly because it is the only state to eschew gerrymandering in favor of nonpartisan redistricting.
"I thought I was leaving the center of the political universe," Caufield said of moving away from Washington, D.C., "and here I ended up smack dab in the center of the political universe. Before I moved, I had heard that 'Oh, Iowans know a lot. Iowans are special. Iowans care about their role.' I mostly dismissed it as propaganda. But once I got here I was astounded at the level of participation."
Six things to know about the Iowa caucuses
• Republicans and Democrats operate under different rules.
• Republicans conduct a secret, winner-takes-all ballot. After voting, Republican caucus participants either go home or stick around to discuss platform issues.
• Democrat participants form "preference groups" for each candidate. A candidate needs at least 15 percent of participants in his or her group to be considered viable. Candidates who are not viable at that point must drop out in that precinct.
• After the first round of preference group formation, backers of candidates who remain viable are permitted to spend a few minutes trying to persuade others to join them for the second, and final, round of forming preference groups.
• Campaigns routinely conduct mock caucuses to train prospective participants in the finer points of the arcane rules and winning people to their side on caucus night.
• Democratic caucus rules are "one of the oddest documents you'll ever see. There are actually references to drawing straws and flipping coins," according to Drake professor of politics Rachel Caufield.