Two small rivers meet in a state first illuminated for Euro-Americans by the journals of Lewis and Clark. Already frozen, the Des Moines and the Raccoon, each about the size of the Clark Fork, meet in the half-million-person capital of a state with more hogs than people.
Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up, has more in common with Missoula than frozen rivers and people friendlier than Mr. Rogers. Des Moines is the cultural Mecca of a rural state, the home of a mid-sized university (Drake), and the victim of a sprawl that has engulfed six miles of farmland beyond what was once my edge-of-town house. And like Montanans, Iowans struggle with (and celebrate) the sprawl, express vague concern about industry and water quality, and invest a near-unfathomable parochial pride in the successes of home-state sports celebrities (St. Louis Rams’ Kurt Warner!). It’s a good state.
Things are much the same; they are also much the different. Although you’d hardly know it in Montana, Iowans are about to choose the two men who will vie to be the next president of the United States. Dubya Bush holds an insurmountable lead over his Republican colleagues, while Bill Bradley is making a serious run at Al Gore. According to recent polls, Gore is favored by only 48 percent of Democratic caucus-goers, and more and more caucusers are declaring themselves undecided. Bradley is within striking distance. The caucus will take place Jan. 24. On that evening, Iowans will gather by party at local precinct halls (such as schools). They will vote on party platform planks, listen to short talks on behalf of each candidate, then divide themselves into groups based on the candidate they support. Delegates to the state convention will be selected based on the number of supporters at each location.
Performance in Iowa and New Hampshire (the first states with primaries) is key to a successful primary campaign. An underdog who surprises in these states gains credibility, while a front runner who stumbles is perceived as vulnerable. Credibility can be parlayed into money badly needed in states where advertising, not issue positions, will determine who wins. But performing well in the Iowa caucuses takes hard work and a grassroots organization that turns people out for caucus, organizes them, and squeezes the most possible delegates out of each precinct. Turnout is difficult because voters are asked to devote an evening to their candidate, not simply a five-minute walk-through at the voting booth. Commitment to the process and a candidate must be deep-seated.
For this reason candidates give Iowa a vastly disproportionate amount of their time. When I last voted in Iowa I saw Jack Kemp, Elizabeth Dole, and Vice President George Bush in person, and I attended a debate of the Democratic candidates. Friends here recently met Bill Bradley and fully expect to meet Al Gore before they have to make a choice between the two. Bradley plans to spend part of every day between Jan. 6 and Jan. 24 somewhere in Iowa, and both Bradley and Gore have had sit-down talks with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register. Although television ads (and thus money) play a role in the process, citizens here have an opportunity to get to know the candidates and their priorities and positions in a manner unmatched in any other state.
But Iowa’s quadrennial day in the sun has engendered envy. Hoping for pork promises and media attention, in the last four years a number of states tried to position their primaries in front of Iowa’s caucuses. For example, though it still follows Iowa, California has moved its primary up, and observers say that there is now no longer enough time between Iowa and California’s rich delegate haul for a surprise candidate to transform his or her Iowa showing into California funding. In this manner the importance of winning small, intimate states through issue positions or character is diminished, and the importance of raising money early becomes magnified. This may be the last year that Americans have the chance to pick a candidate other than the two who raised the most money.
Depressing, isn’t it? Wealthy contributors purchase the big states for candidates; Americans are left with a choice between the two candidates closest to those contributors (through connections, as with Dubya, or influence, as with Gore); successful candidates reward contributors with remunerative legislation upon election. At the Iowa State Fair each year the state crowns its largest pig. The 1998 winner, Hogzilla, weighed in at 1,100 pounds. A writer for The Iowan magazine asks, “Is it any coincidence that in a state where one out of three people is overweight, thousands clamor each year to pay homage to the state’s biggest pig?” The nation faces the same situation in politics: We clamor for the porkiest candidate as the backfat in our arteries congeals.