Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Sounding out candidates at the Iowa caucuses

10 a.m., New Year?s
Day. No better time to hit the campaign trail.

Bleary-eyed and
slightly hungover, I put 2007 behind me and looked ahead to the 2008
presidential election. Along with two political science majors, I trekked to
Des Moines, Iowa, where the sleepy cornfields and docile town squares had come
alive with election fervor.

The state is
traditionally the first quantifiable test of presidential hopefuls. Democrat
Barack Obama?s victory with 37.6 percent of the vote gave him widely perceived
momentum heading into the primaries, while Republican Mike Huckabee became a
serious contender with a 34.4 percent win.


Besides being the
first state to vote, Iowa is also one of only 13 states to employ a caucus
system, a uniquely time-intensive and personal form of voting where Iowans
display their allegiances among their neighbors.

On New Year?s Day,
Iowa was in the throes of a political maelstrom leading up to the caucuses on
Jan. 3. Would-be presidents were answering questions at town-hall meetings and
rallying supporters in elementary school gymnasiums. Cities and hamlets were
crawling with media, transforming Iowa into a microcosm focused all the forces
of the presidential race on the same place at the same time.

2008 could turn out to
be a more tumultuous election year than most: With 12 candidates still entered
in the race, a clear frontrunner has yet to emerge on either side. The first
three primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan all went to different
candidates on the Republican side, while Obama and Hillary Clinton won on the
Democratic side in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.

Who wins will
ultimately be determined by the course of that fickle, fateful process: the
presidential primaries.


On the road

Equipped with only a
camera, a list of campaign stops and a GPS tracker endearingly called ?Maggie,?
we set out from Madison to journey deep into the heart of the presidential
race, crossing the Mississippi into Iowa around noon.

Somewhere in these
hills, candidates were leapfrogging across the state in campaign buses with
inspirational names like the ?Real Solutions Express? (former senator and
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards), the ?Constitution Coach?
(libertarian Republican candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas) and the ?Mitt Mobile,
A Five Brothers Bus? (referring to Republican former governor Mitt Romney’s
five sons).

The next few days
would feature the quintessential elements of American politics: fist-pumping at
campaign rallies, flesh-pressing at meet-and-greets and speech-making at such
diverse locations as an aircraft hangar and the corporate headquarters of a gas
station chain.

They would also
include the unwelcome intrusions of media with tape recorders and telephoto
lenses, lunchtime interruptions at restaurant campaign stops and more calls for
a change in government than anyone could ever stomach.


The primary debate

A part of American
presidential politics for more than a century, the Iowa caucuses are a fixture
of political pundits, bloggers and nightly newscasts ? until the lead-up to the
New Hampshire primary elbows them out of the spotlight.

Iowa and other early
primary states have more clout in deciding how the race will play out in
comparison to the 24 states that vote on Feb. 5, or ?Super Tuesday,? since they
influence media coverage and the candidates’ perceived momentum.

People who live in
states with later primaries generally don’t pay attention until their primary
arrives and then only look at ?who’s getting the most coverage and who’s most
likely to win,? according to University of Wisconsin political science
professor David Canon.

Canon said these
problems could be partly addressed by a shorter, more evenly distributed
primary schedule.

But at the same time,
the focus on a single state encourages one-on-one retail politics as opposed to
the nationwide TV politics that dominate the later stages. All major Democratic
candidates and Republicans Huckabee, Romney and Paul lavished attention on

It can also benefit
lesser-known candidates like Huckabee, who won in Iowa by mobilizing
evangelicals and would otherwise ?not even be a factor right now,? Canon said.

The smaller candidates
invariably spun the Iowa caucuses as a great equalizer to remove the advantages
of money and name recognition. At a campaign stop in Knoxville, Iowa, Sen. Joe
Biden, D-Del., called Iowa ?the last level playing field in American politics,?
and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., praised voters in nearby Indianola for
sounding out candidates for the rest of the country.

Paul offered a candid
appraisal of the primary process during an unguarded moment before a campaign
rally at the luxurious Hotel Fort Des Moines. On his way to the elevator, Paul
said early primaries like Iowa could build momentum, although he took a
pragmatic view of the Iowa frenzy.

?I haven’t been
judgmental,? Paul said. ?I’ve adapted to it.?

But Paul disagreed
with Iowa’s decision to move up the caucuses to Jan. 3, the earliest date ever.
In this election cycle, many states have moved their primaries up in a bid for
greater importance in the primary process.

?I don’t think that
helps grassroots campaigns? because they don’t have as much time to build
support on the ground, Paul said.


The underdogs and
the big dog

Candidates like Biden
revel in the small-town politicking Iowa affords. The senator’s appearance in
Knoxville, home to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum, was a
perfect example of the kind of one-on-one attention Iowa receives.

Biden delivered a
speech peppered with foreign policy analyses and literary allusions (including
a Hamlet quote and a reference to Pakistan’s ?Faustian bargain? with
terrorists) to a small group of Iowans gathered in a high school music room.

A conservative
estimate would have put the median age of attendees at 50. One older attendee
was even connected to a breathing apparatus.

Later that night,
Clinton supporters braved the cold at a windswept municipal airport outside
Knoxville to hear Bill Clinton stump for his wife.

Inside, volunteers
handed out campaign literature in front of turboprop airplanes while a hawker
sold buttons to the crowd milling about an adjoining hangar. An industrial-size
space heater closely resembling a jet engine spewed blue flame in a vain
attempt to heat the room.

The former president arrived
15 minutes late, punctual by campaign standards, and immediately took a more
down-home approach than the foreign policy-focused Biden.

In his speech, Clinton
quoted Mark Twain and displayed a penchant for folksy adages: Republicans knew
?in their heart of hearts? their tax cuts for the rich were wrong, Hillary?s
vision for America was no ?pie in the sky? and aging baby-boomers would ?pose a
big ol’ burden? for their kids without social security reform.


Media circus

We moved on to see
Dodd at a bar and grill in Indianola, Iowa, the next day. After pulling into
town around noon, we had searched in vain for an Internet hot spot as aspiring
sprint car drivers whizzed down the main drag.

The town had no
wireless-equipped coffee shops, so we headed to the public library for Internet
access. Other reporters had the same idea: While there, we waxed political with
reporters from The Associated Press and FOX News, which filmed an interview
with an undecided caucus-goer in the reading area.

According to CNN, more
than 2,500 international journalists received press credentials in Iowa. Even
at the smallest events, reporters vied for space with caucus-goers, with
photographers elbowing each other out of the way.

?I’m surprised at how
over-hyped Iowa’s importance is, how brainwashed people are by the pundits,?
said 17-year-old Alex Noot after the Dodd event.

A crowded Obama rally
that night included two huge platforms for the press section, conveniently
facilitating side shots of Obama against bleachers of cheering fans.

The press cadre even
included two ten-year-olds at a Mitt Romney event at the corporate headquarters
of gas station chain Kum & Go, deep within the urban sprawl of West Des
Moines, where the candidate held forth on the value of business enterprise in
front of a giant American flag. Autumn Daniel and Hailey Rice politely
questioned Romney after the speech as part of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.

?I’ve never seen so
many people in one room,? Rice said immediately afterward.


Iowa caucuses:
?Extremely useful, extremely flawed??

Like the New Hampshire
primary, the Iowa caucuses have sometimes received flak for giving too much say
to a small, overwhelmingly white state.

Jerry Bodlander, an AP
radio reporter from the Washington, D.C., area, echoed views of many neutral
observers and campaign hacks alike, saying Iowans are responsible and
well-educated enough to shoulder the responsibility.

Whether or not the
front-loaded primary process puts too much power in the hands of a few unrepresentative
states, the caucus process itself has flaws, according to Canon.

Whereas Republicans
take a simple vote to assign delegates, Democrats follow an initial vote with a
period of reassignment. If a Democratic candidate doesn?t meet a certain threshold
of votes to earn a delegate in a precinct, supporters often move to the camp of
another candidate.

The process is
time-consuming and sometimes confrontational. As a result, the people who turn
out at the caucuses ?are not representative of the state as a whole,? Canon

The strict 7 p.m.
start time and lengthy voting process make it difficult for parents with
children to attend, while older voters and evangelicals historically turn out
in higher numbers.

High school senior Lindsey
Wetzel had to call in sick at her waitressing job to attend her 69th precinct
caucus in downtown Des Moines.

Although Wetzel
admitted she had not done enough research, she felt the need to support Obama,
given what she knew from friends, websites and Facebook groups, she explained,
munching on a cookie decorated like the ?O? in the Obama campaign logo.

For Biden precinct
captain Laurie Soroka of Des Moines, it?s simply a question of motivation. ?If
you?re not going to participate in the caucus, you don?t deserve a voice,? she

But the process can be
intimidating. Charles Thomas, attending the 68th precinct caucus in the
auditorium next to the cafeteria where the 69th was meeting, said it was his
first and last time at a caucus.

Thomas, a Clinton
supporter, went to the caucus with his mother, an Obama fan. He felt
uncomfortable with the public format, which he said has led some acquaintances
to look down on him, ?like I’m less of a black man because I’m supporting

?If I was really on my
P’s and Q’s, I would come out again to support my candidate, but I might just
punk out (during the next election),? he said.

Marty Manley, an
Internet-company CEO from Oakland, Calif., came out to Iowa to see all the
candidates in person. He called the Iowa caucuses ?extremely useful and very

?We’re thinning our
field (of candidates) based on a flawed election,? Manley said. ?But maybe it’s
America’s focus group, a very knowledgeable group.?


?Just politics?

Regardless of the fairness
of the process and of the power wielded by Iowa voters, the caucuses can
undoubtedly make or break a campaign. As Dodd noted at his rally in Indianola,
a win in Iowa can propel an underdog candidate to the forefront of the public

?I?ll become a
household name by 8 o?clock Friday morning,? Dodd pledged.

Dodd earned 0.2
percent of the vote and left the race after the caucuses. But Obama, who had
been trailing Clinton in national polls, made headlines with his win in Iowa.
His come-from-behind victory became the story of the day.

Despite the face-time
with candidates and involved voting process, many Iowans were jaded about the
presidential race.

?It’s just politics,?
said Vicki Beattie, a Knoxville hotel manager from New Zealand who caucused for
George W. Bush in 2000, but now supports Clinton. ?It was the same in New
Zealand. ? You say all these wonderful things to get people to vote for you,
and then they get into office ? and it’s not as urgent as it was in the campaign.?

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