The first dramatic stage in the race to the White House takes place in the sparsely populated prairies of the rural Midwest. Paul Harris reports on the struggle to elect the world’s most powerful man – or woman.
Not all voters are created equal. Some are more powerful than others. That was the strangely inegalitarian message that Senator Barack Obama brought to the voters of Mount Vernon, Iowa. They had trudged through the snow-blanketed streets of their tiny college town, packing themselves into a sports gymnasium, to hear Obama appeal for their support. His appearance was billed as a ‘call to service’, deliberately echoing America’s cherished memories of President John F Kennedy.But it was his off-the-cuff remarks, not his speech, that created a stir. Turning from his notes, he spelt out how important his audience was. ‘No one is going to have more influence over who is going to be leader of the free world than the people of Iowa,’ he said.
America’s electoral system has made Iowa hugely important because it is the first to vote in the presidential nomination race. That gives this medium-sized Midwestern rural state a potentially decisive say in choosing the Republican and Democratic candidates and thus the future President. Long before 37 million Californians or 23 million Texans get to vote, it will be fewer than three million Iowans who pick the candidates. They may even settle the race before the bigger states get a chance to cast a ballot. They go to the polls on 3 January.
The Democrats are caught in a three-way battle between Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards that could explode and let an unknown in. The Republicans are even more fluid and volatile. Last week their race was turned on its head with the stunning emergence of Mick Huckabee, a jovial social conservative and creationist who is now leading the Republican pack.
The town of Newton is typical of Iowa’s rural landscape and mindset. It is tidily set around a sturdy domed courthouse. The main square is lined with old-fashioned family-owned shops that still carve out a living despite a cluster of chain stores on the outskirts of town.
It is a far cry from Manhattan’s soaring skyscrapers or Los Angeles’s sprawling suburbs. Yet those huge cities have gone largely ignored in the race to determine America’s next leader. Visits are rare. Not so in Newton, population 15,000.
On Tuesday Huckabee came through town, all smiles and suddenly trailing a huge media pack. He glad-handed his way through the town’s small college campus and spoke of his journey from a hard childhood in Arkansas to being the unlikely presidential frontrunner: ‘I’ve really seen up close and personal the American dream. On my mother’s side, I’m a generation away from dirt floors and outside toilets.’
Bill Richardson, Democratic governor of New Mexico, also took a swing through town. That followed the appearance of Hollywood actress Madeleine Stowe who was opening an office for John Edwards.
It has been like this in Newton for months. Hillary Clinton has held a rally in Newton’s coffee shop. Obama spoke to a crowd of 300. Senator John McCain held a town hall meeting. Mitt Romney has visited numerous times. All will be back. In short, tiny Newton sees the sort of political action that cities like Seattle, Miami, San Francisco and Boston only dream of. It is also up close and personal. Newton’s citizens question candidates in intimate settings sometimes no bigger than someone’s front room.
Yet Iowa’s power is a product of the modern media age. With the growth of 24-hour politics and cable TV the concept of ‘momentum’ or ‘the Big Mo’ has entered the contest as political gold dust. Conventional wisdom says you win first to win big. If you do well in the chilly fields of Iowa, you go into the next contest of New Hampshire as leader of the pack. Succeed again and you could ride the wave all the way to the Republican or Democratic nomination.
‘If you leave Iowa with upward momentum, it makes all the difference. You don’t even have to win. Just finish on an upward trajectory,’ said Bruce Gronbeck, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. Just look at John Kerry in 2004. Howard Dean had led the Democratic race for a year. Then Kerry won Iowa and never looked back. He owed his victory to Iowa (and Democrats can thank or blame Iowa for Kerry).
Yet Iowa is far from a typical slice of America. It has all that electoral power yet it is overwhelmingly white in a country where ethnic minorities are growing. It is a rural place whereas most Americans live in cities. It is a place where corn and the farm dominate politics. It is a state where Republican religious conservatives make up some 40 per cent of the vote.
That means Iowa warps the American race. If New York were voting first, there is little chance that Huckabee – who does not believe in evolution – would be top of the polls. If California were voting first, Clinton would not have to pander to the farm subsidies vote.
That demographic weirdness is further warped by the strange way Iowans actually vote. They do not hold secret ballots. Instead they ‘caucus’. This means Iowans will gather in town halls, school classrooms, living rooms and libraries. Then they debate and harangue each other, sometimes converting rivals. After minutes – or more often hours – they retreat to their corners and a count is taken, usually by show of hands. The results are then phoned in. For the Democrats it is even more complex: anyone whose candidate gets less than 15 per cent can shift their support.
The strain of caucusing and its complexity ensures a low turnout. In fact, Iowa’s vast power is wielded only by about 100,000 people on each side who turn up. That magnifies yet further the intensely personal nature of politics here, despite the fact its decisions affect the whole world. Local networks of support are vital. Each campaign has vast and detailed databases of its supporters. They are maintained and groomed and cajoled to vote. Usual campaigning tactics such as TV ads are less important.
As one local columnist wrote, it is possible for a campaign supporter to sway a neighbour to switch their vote by offering to sweep snow out of their yard. In Iowa such a vote change could be vitally important. It also makes the entire contest impossible to predict. Every candidate – Democrat or Republican, frontrunner or also-ran – must simply deal with it. They have no choice.
One man who is dealing with it well is Eric Woolson, a sturdy man wearing a plaid outdoor shirt who is the Iowa campaign manager for Huckabee. Relaxing in Huckabee’s headquarters in the state capital of Des Moines, Woolson has every reason to be pleased. Over the past few weeks his candidate has completely reshaped the Republican race.
With a lilting accent that betrays a Virginia childhood, Woolson did not look pressured by his campaign’s new frontrunner status. ‘It is exciting when the campaign has momentum. You can feel the energy. You get all these volunteers and suddenly you are fending off media attention,’ he said.
The transformation of Huckabee’s campaign has been acute. He is a successful Arkansas governor who came from the same town, Hope, as Bill Clinton. They both grew up poor and mastered a friendly Southern-fried style with the public. Huckabee even made comic use of his endorsement by kitsch action star Chuck Norris, using him in popular TV ads. ‘Huckabee has that whole Chuck Norris act. He can seem very appealing,’ said Gronbeck.
But the similarity with Bill Clinton ends there. Huckabee, a former pastor, is the real deal of religious conservatism. He is anti-abortion and deeply right-wing on almost any issue. He even wants to abolish income tax. For months he slogged through Iowa, often by himself. It was old fashioned campaigning away from the million-dollar efforts of his rivals. ‘It has really been eyeball to eyeball,’ said Woolson, a picture of Huckabee looming on the bookshelf behind him. ‘He was only getting, say, 50 people at a meeting. But when he left those 50 people all wanted to work for him.’
Now that has paid off. Huckabee sits atop the Republican field in Iowa. The real change came back in August when Huckabee beat fellow social conservative Sam Brownback at the informal ‘straw poll’ held in Ames, Iowa. Huckabee lost to Romney but beat Brownback by 400 or so votes and dominated the headlines. Brownback soon dropped out, paving the way for Huckabee’s sole grasp of the conservative vote. It was one of the most significant political events of 2007.
‘That shows the power of a vote in Iowa. Those 400 voters in Ames got to say who went on and who dropped out. It just boggles the mind,’ said Woolson. Iowa has made Huckabee a force to be reckoned with.
No one needs to tell Mitt Romney that. Huckabee’s success has been a huge blow to Romney. His campaign has poured vast resources into Iowa in the belief that a win would propel the former Massachusetts governor to the Republican ticket. After all, Romney looks every inch the President already. He is craggy-jawed and tall and has an All-American family of equally generous biological heritage. He has hit all the right conservative notes and led in Iowa for months on end. Until now.
Huckabee’s rise forced Romney last week into making a long-awaited speech on his Mormon religion. Many of the conservatives flocking to Huckabee’s banner are the sort of support Romney needs, but they are sceptical of his Mormon background. So last week Romney made a vow in Texas that no Mormon leaders would guide him in the presidency. Then he hopped on a plane and flew straight to Iowa to sell his pitch.
Romney’s words were well received, at least by the press. The voters of Iowa are more slow to make up their mind. That partly explains why the Republican campaign has started to become dirty. Last week mystified reporters staying at the Marriott in Des Moines awoke to find a curious flier had been pushed under their doors during the night. It listed a long series of complaints against Huckabee and questioned his conservative credentials. It claimed he mocked God and was not a real Christian. It also contained details about a case during Huckabee’s time in Arkansas where he lobbied to parole a convicted rapist, Wayne Dumond, who then killed a woman after his release.
It was a nasty turn of events. Huckabee’s staff said it showed how their candidate was now feared by his rivals. That is probably true. But it also showed Huckabee’s weaknesses. Firstly, the rapist case does undercut Huckabee’s Good Ol’ Boy image. At the same time Huckabee’s brief tenure as frontrunner has already been marked by mistakes as the media spotlight focused on him. Most embarrassingly, he revealed – 31 hours after the news first broke – that he was completely unaware of a new intelligence document that claimed the Iranians had abandoned their nuclear weapons programme. It was the biggest story in the world and Huckabee had to publicly admonish his staff for not pointing it out to him.
Such stuff means it would be madness to write Romney off. He can use Iowa to spring back into contention. But the grisly Republican fight developing in the state is also good news for the three other main Republican contenders: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and actor Fred Thompson. All three are lying in wait for the winner of Iowa to emerge. They have poured enough efforts into the state in order to stay alive after 3 January, but they have pitched their camps in the later states of New Hampshire in the case of McCain, South Carolina for Thompson and Florida for Giuliani.
It is a risky strategy. The ‘Big Mo’ of the winner of Iowa can blast away poll leads elsewhere overnight. For Giuliani in particular, whose lead in national polls has been firm but narrow all year, it is a high stakes game. He has surrendered the early battlefields in the hopes that his high profile will allow him to win later on, perhaps even waiting as long as Super Tuesday in early February, when as many as 20 states will decide. It might work. But at the moment no one is saying for sure.
Standing in the warmth of an indoor hall in snowy Mount Vernon, computer scientist Leon Tabak, 52, was a rare Republican in a liberal college town. ‘I have not made up my mind yet. I am leaning McCain, but I like Romney too,’ he said. Was he part of the Huckabee surge? ‘No,’ he laughed. Tabak was in no hurry to make up his mind. All of the candidates will likely be passing nearby before the race is done. The Republican contest in Iowa – even as a freezing snow carpets the state – is starting to boil.
Meggan Macomber, 21, shrugged her shoulders as she considered who she was going to vote for. She is a student in Iowa at Cornell College and is committed to voting for a Democrat. ‘I like Obama. But all our candidates are strong. I like all of them,’ she said.
That is the problem facing the Democrats. They have a field that has many in the party spoilt for choice. They have impressive senators, governors, a woman, a black, a Hispanic and even a left-winger. The party is also largely united on the major issues. On policy there is little to choose between the frontrunners on Iraq, the economy or health care. ‘With minor differences in core values… the choice may boil down to that intangible quality: personality,’ said Rekha Basu, a columnist for the Des Moines Register, an Iowa newspaper that (for the moment) wields more political clout in America than the New York Times
That battle over perceptions explains why the Democrat contest is now such a vicious fight. It is gripped by ceaseless barbed remarks, dirty tricks, email rumours and resignations. Unlike the Republicans, no candidate is stepping aside from Iowa. They have all thrown themselves in to win. That means the fight in Iowa is only going to get bloodier and nastier. ‘We are getting to the point where strategically risky things have to be done. There is not much time left and few other ways to move the polls than by risks,’ Gronbeck said.
The main reason for the sudden shift is the rise of Obama to finally eclipse Hillary Clinton in the state. Clinton steadily eroded the lead of the first frontrunner in Iowa, John Edwards, and commanded the field for months. Her campaign was based on cultivating an aura of inevitability and it did not look misplaced. Obama looked to have faded away.
But over the last month that has all changed. Clinton flubbed a TV debate question over the obscure issue of driving licences for illegal immigrants. It was her first mistake and other campaigns pounced. The media seized on the issue too. Clinton responded by going negative. And, suddenly, after a year of flawless campaigning, gaffe followed gaffe. Her campaign struck out ludicrously at Obama for writing an essay as a child claiming he wanted to be President when he grew up (the Clinton campaign cited this as an example of Obama’s ruthless ambition). Then Bill Clinton shot himself in the foot by claiming to have always been against the Iraq war (his wife voted for it). Then a senior Iowa volunteer for Clinton had to resign after forwarding an email claiming Obama was influenced by radical Muslims.
Like the rise of Huckabee, the sudden shift in Iowa changed the national race for the party. Now it is Obama – soon to be buoyed by the arrival of Oprah Winfrey on his campaign trail – who is in the ascendant. Clinton is currently on her way to second place.
Yet it is not that simple. The slugfest between Obama and Clinton is a risky tactic. So are the ‘push polls’ that have swamped the state, whereby pollsters ring voters under the guise of surveying them but in fact plant rumours about rival candidates. Iowans have a long history of being turned off by such tactics. That might be why one candidate in particular is smiling: Edwards.
Edwards is still in the game and running a strong third. He spent the first half of the year as a strident critic of Clinton but as soon as the rest of the field started tearing strips off each other, his campaign lightened. He is now relentlessly optimistic, hoping voters will be put off by the fight at the top. He should know. It worked for him before in 2004 when he finished a shock second. But Edwards is not alone. Other Democratic candidates such as Joe Biden and Chris Dodd could similarly upset the barrel. So could Bill Richardson. They all just need to finish strong and the ‘Big Mo’ could be theirs. For Democrats Iowa is a bloody battleground. But also, still, a field of dreams.
The walls of Jackie Hansen’s office were covered in whiteboards and long lists of names. Outside, snow was threatening from the sky above Des Moines. Hansen was hunched over a computer, where she takes calls and enters data into the Huckabee HQ computers, amassing an intimate portrait of his support and how to get it to come out and caucus. ‘Data entry is not what I enjoy the most. But I know how important it is,’ she said. She lives several hundreds miles away and has set up temporary home in Iowa to help Huckabee. ‘My husband is financing it. We both believe how important this is,’ she said, before stopping to take another phone call. ‘I am so glad you called…,’ she gushed down the phone as a key target rang in.
Each campaign relies on people like Hansen. Sheer organisation is key to winning Iowa. Away from the media glare, away from the celebrity endorsements, it is in the end all about who can persuade their supporters to go out on a cold night, stand in a group for hours and debate with rivals. To stand up and be counted as the first – and most important – voters in an election that changes the world.
One of those voters is Macomber. When the caucus date arrives she will be at her parents’ place in neighbouring Minnesota. She will have to leave her family in the holiday season to come back to Iowa early. On that decision – influenced by family, weather and travel – a precious vote for Barack Obama will reside.
‘I want to caucus. I want to show my support for Obama,’ she said. But she did not sound absolutely certain she would make the trip. On a few thousand such personal choices, the whole fate of the race depends.
Like other Democrats, Clinton favours a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, bringing troops home on a step-by-step basis. She has proposed a healthcare plan to help give coverage for all Americans. On foreign policy, she favours adopting a tough line towards Iran.
Also has a healthcare plan and favours withdrawal from Iraq. He has vowed to set up a scheme allowing Americans to perform ‘service’ for their country on a voluntary basis, as when John F. Kennedy set up the Peace Corps. He has a policy of talking directly to hostile foreign leaders.
Has a strongly populist tone to his campaign, making the economy and jobs one of his main focuses. He has vowed to tackle tax breaks for the very rich and hedge funds and wants to set up a Home Rescue Fund to help people caught up in the current mortgage crisis.
Has liberal views on abortion, gay marriage and gun control, usually believing individual states are best suited to crafting their own policies. His main plank is a hawkish foreign policy that aims to project US power abroad in the war on terror.
Supports making President George Bush’s tax cuts benefiting wealthy Americans permanent. He has also struck a hard conservative line on being against abortion and any steps towards the legalisation of gay marriages.
Has a radical plan to scrap income tax and replace it with a single national sales tax. The former pastor is also anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion. However, he also wants America to achieve ‘energy independence’ and move away from reliance on imported oil.
Has the most radical Democratic plan for Iraq, calling for a complete withdrawal of troops, leaving no residual forces – trainers etc – behind. He also wants a major overhaul of the American education system.
The Republican has suffered for two key policies: his support for the troops’ surge in Iraq and insistence that they must stay until the war is won; and for some sort of path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants who have jobs and pay taxes.
Way to the White House
The race for each party’s nomination involves a contest in each state where the winner gets a number of delegates, allotted according to the size of the state’s population. The candidate with the most delegates at the end becomes the party’s nominee for President.
States usually hold primaries where voters choose their candidate by ticking a ballot form. All votes are then counted as in a normal election. However, some states, such as Iowa, the first state to vote, hold a caucus. This involves Iowans gathering on one evening in allotted places such as town halls – to represent their candidates. They debate with rivals until a decision is taken to hold a vote. A show of hands is usually counted at the end and the results phoned in.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008>