Welcome to Iowa

NORTHWOOD, IOWA—The Welcome Center rest stop on Iowa's northern border lives up to every stereotype associated with the Hawkeye State. The barn-styled building has a cowhide pattern in every corner, and the coffee shop serves delicious apple pie and cheap drip coffee. Brochures tout a range of local attractions, from the American Gothic House to a Maize Maze, Matchstick Marvels (a museum of matchstick art), and the World's Largest Truckstop (one of my personal favorites).

Noticeably absent: any indication that in exactly three weeks Iowans might decide whether Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, or one of the other Republicans takes on Barack Obama in 2012. This largely rural state of three million plays an outsized role in selecting the man or woman who will run the country thanks to Iowa’s first-on-the-calendar caucus. By the time most states hold their primary or caucuses, the field will have been winnowed down to only a few possibilities—if that. Iowans (and New Hampshirites after them) get the full gamut, deciding which candidates pass the viability test.

A few years back, I came to Iowa for college, skeptical of a political system that granted so much sway to such an unrepresentative state. This is, after all, a state where 91 percent of the population is white and 15 percent over the age of 65. Its rural makeup, with few urban centers, further skews the country’s political rhetoric away from the concerns of city denizens. It leads to veneration of the rural mindset and politicians pledging unwavering support for permanent farm subsidies. And besides, who could trust a bunch of country bumpkins with selecting the leader of the third largest country in the world?

Yet when the 2008 caucuses rolled around, I found myself slowly becoming a true believer in the process. The myth that Iowans take their politics more seriously than other Americans proved true from my vantage point after I watched locals quiz Bill Richardson on obscure parts of our nuclear policy and joined crowds crammed into coffee shops to give also-ran Chris Dodd a hearing. The town-hall, retail politics really did test the candidates in valuable ways that would be missed in some form of national primary. (The overwhelming whiteness is still troubling, but at least Iowans proved they weren't overwhelmingly racist when Barack Obama finished first last time.)

I spent much of this past summer back in the state reporting, but this is my first stop in Iowa since August, when the fields were still teeming with bright green corn stalks and soy as far as the eye could see. Now it's a desolate wasteland of barren fields, light snow, and extremist Republican presidential hopefuls. It's not just the crops that have changed since I last stepped foot in my former home state. In August, Michele Bachmann became a presumptive frontrunner after she took first place in the Ames Straw Poll. The only possible threat to her campaign was the emergence of Texas Governor Rick Perry, a prospective juggernaut who would upend the field. Now the two have dropped to near the bottom of the field, each averaging 9 percent in current state polls. Back then Mitt Romney had ruled out campaigning in Iowa, dropping in for the pre-Straw Poll debate and quickly jetting back to New Hampshire where he was placing all his chips. Now, Romney is panicking at the rise of Newt Gingrich, and his affiliated Super PAC is in the middle of a $3 million blitz of Iowa ads. In the summer, Gingrich had recently lost his Iowa campaign director Craig Schoenfeld, who scorned his former boss to begin working for a PAC that helped ease Perry's entrance into the race. Now Gingrich is atop the polls, and Schoenfeld has rejoined his campaign.

What hadn't changed until the past week, was the pace of campaigning. Rick Santorum essentially moved to the state and Ron Paul galvanized his enthusiastic supporters to build the state's best organization, but everyone else spent the fall lollygagging. Only now are they embarking on the in-person vote-counting and ad blitzing that could sway the election. Perry is launching a 44-city bus tour (though, “city” is a misnomer for most stops) that will run for the next two weeks, and Bachmann plans to tour all of Iowa's 99 counties over the course of ten days. Polls show that a majority of Iowans are still undecided or could be swayed to support a different candidate, so these final pushes have a chance to reshape the race. But time is quickly running out. A Sioux City debate on Thursday and a pro-life movie premiere tomorrow—hosted by 2008 Iowa primary winner Mike Huckabee with Perry, Bachmann, Gingrich, and Santorum in attendance—are the final major gatherings before January 3.

I'll be reporting from the ground in the first-in-the-nation state for the next three weeks—through caucus night. Along the way, I’ll attempt to make some sense of this topsy-turvy presidential nomination contest where four candidates have placed first in the polls at different points. Here are some of the questions I'll be addressing:

  • Do the caucuses still matter? Pundits were already questioning the importance of Iowa after Huckabee's win meant nothing for the overall nomination last time. If Gingrich does place first, the importance of retail politics will be completely undermined and might be bypassed by future campaigns.
  • Ron Paul is roundly credited with building the most developed ground game of any candidate. What does that look like, how did he manage to get so far ahead of everyone else, and can he actually pull off the upset next month?
  • The state's evangelical base entered the 2012 race with all the momentum on its side. The Christian right handed the state to Huckabee in 2008 and in 2010, defeated a slate of three state supreme-court judges in what was a referendum against Iowa's same-sex marriage policy. But for this year, the two most likely nominees—Gingrich and Romney—have both strayed from the typical evangelical doctrine. Will evangelicals coalesce around another candidate or sit out the caucuses?
  • It's all about the Republicans for the next three weeks, but Iowa is still a purple state that might be in play for the general election. With all the madness circling the Republican candidates, how do Democrats feel? Will plans to “occupy the caucuses” come to fruition?

The Prospect is here to answer any burning questions from our readers. Please send e-mail tips and suggestions to pcaldwell[at]prospect[dot]org. And enjoy the spectacle of politics in the heartland.