Politics & Policy

What Happens In Iowa, Stays in Iowa

The idiosyncracies of the first caucus may not apply elsewhere.

There is a good chance America will find itself with two unexpected new front-runners on Friday morning: Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee.

Maybe Hillary Clinton or John Edwards will edge out the Illinois senator; maybe Mitt Romney will regain the lead he lost to the Arkansas governor. If they do, it is unlikely to be by a wide margin. But if recent polls are accurate, two little-known charismatic figures — artful articulators of religious rhetoric, neither brimming with experience in national-security matters — will be in the driver’s seat for their respective parties’ nomination.

How, in the second presidential election after 9/11, with U.S. forces engaged in a war on terror on two fronts, Pakistan a simmering cauldron of extremism and nuclear weapons, Iran ascendant, and foreign threats certain to dominate the next president’s agenda, could the first major contest be won by two candidates who stand out for their lack of foreign-policy experience? How did candidates who are national front-runners, or near the national lead, find themselves behind — like Hillary Clinton, for instance, or a dismissed Rudy Giuliani?

Iowa has always been the target of jealousy, as residents in other states, lucky to get a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser held in their neck of the woods, wonder why a Davenport diner patron gets a personal face-to-face pitch every time they sit down for a cup of coffee. But the quadrennial resentment of forty-nine other states may be building to a tipping point, as the argument against the caucus grows beyond one state having such a disproportionate influence on the presidential nominating process. The evidence is building that the tastes of Iowa may be wildly divergent from the tastes of the country as a whole, and that the political system is tiring of catering to the quirky idiosyncrasies of a relative handful of committed partisans.

For starters, the tastes of Iowa caucus-goers may not even reflect the tastes of Iowans.

On Monday, John Fund recounted the oddities inherent in a caucus system — no night workers, no absentee ballots for the sick, shut-ins and people who are out of town on the day of the caucus. Beyond Fund’s list, how many parents of young children decide not to participate, unable to find a sitter, or exhausted at the thought of dragging moppets or infants to the high school for several hours? Who ends up going to the emergency room Thursday and unable to attend? How many police, doctors, firemen, and others can’t get off the night shift? How many are kept away by one of Iowa’s standard midwinter snowstorms and freezing temperatures?

The end result of a caucus is to measure the preferences of about six percent of the state’s registered voters, and when the decision is opened to all of the state’s voters, what sold in midwinter may fall short in November. In 2004, John Kerry and John Edwards combined for 70 percent of the state’s Democratic caucus-goers; with a Democratic ticket that included both of the favorite choices of the state, one would expect a particularly energized and enthusiastic turnout from the local Democrats in November. Instead, for the first time in five cycles, the state went red — one of only two states that flipped to Republicans from 2000.

Focusing on the state’s Republicans, we find the caucus-goers differ from not only GOP voters in other early primary states, they differ from Republicans nationally. Iowa Republicans are much less supportive of the Iraq war than Republicans elsewhere in the country. Strategic Vision has regularly asked Republicans in the state, “Do you favor a withdrawal of all United States military from Iraq within the next six months?” On December 26-27, 48 percent of Iowa Republicans said yes, 40 percent said no. The “yes” has been in the neighborhood of 50 percent all year long. (Note that the Pew Center, in November, found 81 percent of Iowa Republicans saying keep troops in. When trying to sort out that number with the view in the Strategic Vision numbers, the similar results in the SV poll week in and week out, would appear to argue for its credibility.)

That November, the Pew Center found that nationally, 74 percent of Republicans said Iraq was going very well or fairly well. Two-thirds of Republicans nationally (67 percent) favored maintaining troops in Iraq; 30 percent want troops withdrawn.

Nationally, 25 percent of Republicans want to hear the candidates talk about Iraq; New Hampshire and South Carolina are in the same neck of the woods — 22 percent in the Granite State, 26 percent in the Palmetto State. But only 15 percent of Iowans want to hear the candidates talk about Iraq.

Iowa Republicans are actually less worried about illegal immigration than their counterparts elsewhere. In Iowa, 47 percent say the growing number of immigrants to the U.S. threaten traditional American customs; nationally it’s 59 percent, 50 percent in New Hampshire, and 59 percent in South Carolina.

Nationally, 19 percent of Republicans said they wanted to hear the candidates talk more about the economy; in Iowa and South Carolina, it’s only 12 percent. Meanwhile, other issues seem more pressing in this first state: nationally, only two percent of Republicans want to hear more about morality and values. In Iowa, it’s seven percent. Only one percent of Republicans nationwide want to hear more about Social Security. In Iowa, it’s six percent.

Sixty-one percent of Iowa Republicans attend church weekly; it’s 31 percent in New Hampshire and 60 percent in South Carolina.

In early 2007, Gallup put the number of Republicans who attend church weekly at 39 percent.

Nationally, 67 percent of Republicans approve of President Bush’s job performance. In Iowa, it’s 80 percent.

The Iowa caucus electorate seems further to the right on a few selected economic issues than GOP voters elsewhere. In Iowa, 20 percent of Republicans believe the government should guarantee health care; that percentage is 39 nationally, 40 percent in South Carolina, and 35 percent in New Hampshire. The Pew Center found half of Iowa Republicans agreeing that stricter environmental laws

cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, while 39 percent say stricter laws are worth the cost. Republican voters elsewhere generally say that tougher environmental laws are worth the cost: 55 percent of Republican voters nationally, 54 percent in New Hampshire, and 53 percent in South Carolina express that view.

Iowa is not alone in having some unrepresentative views; most notably, 55 percent of New Hampshire Republicans believe abortion should be legal in most cases (!); nationally, that number is 34 percent, 35 percent in Iowa, and 38 percent in South Carolina.

But the overall portrait of voters on the right in Iowa is that they’re more religious, less supportive of the Iraq war, and more pleased with the performance of President Bush than Republicans elsewhere. In other words, this is a voter pool tailor-made for a candidate with the style, background, and strengths of Mike Huckabee.

The state exhibits other quirks in its political tastes. Caucusgoers claim to be violently allergic to “negative advertising.” Congressional Quarterly describes it as “‘Iowa nice’ — the tendency of Iowans to be friendly and civil — and expect the same from their presidential candidates.”

The “murder-suicide” between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in 2004 is often cited, but even here, Iowans are being unfair by recoiling from both the mud-slinger going negative and the target. Apparently they deem the criticism worth taking into consideration when selecting a candidate, but somehow simultaneously illegitimate for another candidate to raise or discuss.

But even if the “Be Nice” commandment were applied fairly across the board, Iowans’ no-negativity standards provide particular challenges for any underdog. Once in a great while, a little-known candidate can climb in the polls simply by touting their own strengths, but often a challenger needs a contrast, to be able to finish the sentence, “I am a better choice for the party than the frontrunner, because ____.”

Finally, while any voter is entitled to change his or her mind, Iowans seem to see it as a virtue; Fund noted an AP poll of a large sample of voters that estimates that 40 percent of GOP voters had changed candidate allegiances since November. This may reflect that local Republicans are careful not to grow too attached and to look beyond their first impressions; or it may just mean that they’re flighty, fickle, that they fall hard for the political ‘flavor of the month,’ and have the political equivalent of attention-deficit disorder.

By holding the first major presidential selection step in Iowa, the parties guarantee that the winner is more likely to be populist, isolationist, pacifist, or at the very least, a candidate who de-emphasizes foreign policy issues and credentials. (I suppose this is offset by their reward to the candidate most fluent and focused on agricultural issues.) This year the national Republicans let Iowans reward the most openly religious, the one most similar to the current president and his low national approval ratings, the one who was most willing to “play nice.”

Much like the geographical limits to “what happens in Vegas,” we may see a certain similarly limited range for “what appeals in Iowa.”

— Jim Geraghty reports on “The Campaign Spot” blog on NRO.

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