Iowa: America’s quirky but crucial campaign test

August 20, 2015 6:20 am
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Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) works the grill at the Iowa Pork Producers Pork Tent during the Iowa State Fair on August 18, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa/AFP
Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) works the grill at the Iowa Pork Producers Pork Tent during the Iowa State Fair on August 18, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa/AFP
WASHINGTON, United States, Aug 20 – It is home to just one percent of Americans, lacks ethnic diversity and hosts an impenetrable voting system. So why does Iowa remain such an important presidential campaign ground?

Simply put, Iowa’s caucuses are first. With its residents casting the debut votes in the 2016 race, all eyes are already on the Hawkeye State, and it will stay that way until caucus day, likely February 1.

Most of the 17 Republican and five Democratic White House hopefuls have already descended multiple times on the folksy heartland. Nearly all are attending the Iowa State Fair, currently in full swing and offering candidates massive media exposure while getting up close with voters.

It is a rite of political passage: eat pork on a stick, admire butter sculptures and face pointed questions from voters, all in front of national reporters eager to assess how candidates are faring early on.

“We intend to be here often,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio promised Tuesday from the fair’s “soapbox” stage.

Iowa is immensely consequential for candidates, and it takes its presidential vetting role seriously.

“It’s kind of a madhouse,” David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University who wrote a book about the Iowa caucuses, told AFP from the fair.

“The crowds, the media scrum, the interest in the soapbox. It’s beyond anything we’ve seen,” he added.

Campaign spin machines aside, Iowa is about intimate encounters with voters on front porches, in coffee shops and church basements.

It is a study in imperfect electoral math and inconvenient precinct caucuses that bar absentee voting and frustrate participants with quirky rules.

Despite its system, “you have to really admire Iowa,” said Joseph Lane, an Emory & Henry College professor who has studied the caucuses since 2000.

“They have managed to make people work with voters on a much more individual basis than has survived almost anywhere else in the United States,” Lane said.

Iowa’s image remains powerful in American lore: idyllic small-town life where faith, common sense and an open-hearted warmth prevail.

“There’s a nostalgia associated with Iowa that goes beyond the political process,” observed Jeff Coleman, a one-time Pennsylvania state legislator.

“It is America as many people remember it, and the America that many people would like to have back.”

He insisted that despite technological transformations, Iowa remains necessary because it “slows the process down.”

Coleman supports Rick Santorum, the conservative ex-senator who visited all 99 Iowa counties in a pickup truck in 2011. He narrowly beat Mitt Romney in Iowa, only to finish runner-up to Romney for the nomination.

Capturing lightning in a bottle again is unlikely – Santorum is polling at barely one percent, steamrolled by better-known candidates.

But his improbable win four years ago proved his own words: “Money doesn’t buy Iowa,” he said in 2012. “Hard work, good ideas, strong principles” do.

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