Iowa’s campaign circus

MARCI MCDONALD February 1 1988

Iowa’s campaign circus

MARCI MCDONALD February 1 1988

Iowa’s campaign circus


A crowd of 2,600 people had jammed into the atrium of a gleaming, new Des Moines office complex, beneath a cascade of red, white and streamers. As a Dixieland band

sent up a trombone salute, the throng rose in a resounding ovation for the politician bounding onto the makeshift stage. Waves of silver curls set off his ruddy good looks. His immaculately tailored navy suit deftly concealed a certain bulkiness around the midriff. Speaking without notes, he held the crowd in thrall as he spoke of a “new spirit in America.” The audience went wild. Watching from a balcony, nurse Joan Sorensen marvelled that, in a political campaign remarkably short on charisma, here was a man with the genuine article. “He’s so dynamic, isn’t he?” she said. “I’d vote for him in a minute.” The trouble is that Senator Edward Kennedy—the Massachusetts Democrat whose presence had so rivetted the crowd—is not running in this year’s



presidential election. After opening up the Democratic race two years ago by taking himself out of it, Kennedy had come to Iowa last week to help boost the fortunes of the small, intense man who stood, overshadowed, behind him—Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. But the fact that Kennedy’s presence provoked so much excitement in campaignjaded Des Moines only two weeks before the state’s key Feb. 8 caucuses—the first major voting test—indicated just how open the contest remains.

According to a Los Angeles Times poll released last week, Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri led the Democratic field with 23 per cent of those Iowans questioned, compared with 21 per cent for Illinois Senator Paul Simon and 15 per cent for Dukakis. Former Colorado senator Gary Hart had slipped to 12 per cent. His renewed presidential bid was plagued not only by past sexual indiscretions but by new allegations that one of his supporters violated federal election laws in making contributions to the 1984 and 1988 campaigns. Last week

Hart confirmed that there may have been four such illegal contributions and that the money would be returned.

In the Republican contest, The Des Moines Register's most recent poll showed Republican Senator Robert Dole of Kansas 15 points ahead of Vice-President George Bush. As candidates wooed Iowans with photo opportunities on snowbound pig farms and breakfast drop-ins in village coffee shops, many voters confessed to confusion. “The Democrats are all just one big boys’ club,” said Nancy Lenhart, a Des Moines social studies teacher. “And the Republicans are starting to shoot bullets at each other. None of them looks very presidential and nobody has grabbed me.”

With that level of indecision apparent across the country, Iowa’s caucuses have come under even more intense scrutiny than usual. And Dukakis’s importing of Kennedy was just one example of how the candidates are pulling out all the stops to court a tiny minority of the state’s 2.8 million people: an estimated 200,000 activists from both parties who

will brave frigid temperatures to turn up at 2,487 precinct caucuses—all to send a grand total of 95 delegates to next summer’s nominating conventions. In fact, in a campaign notably short on issues, the question of whether small, middle-class and homogenously white Iowa should have so much clout in the presidential process has become an issue in itself.

What brought it to a head was the decision by Democratic Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee to virtually shutter his campaign in the state, charging that the undue influence of its kickoff caucuses “distorts the process.” As Gore pointed out, for the past 16 years the winners of the caucuses have failed to carry the state in the general election. Gore has all but ignored Iowans to concentrate on 20 southern and borderstate primaries on March 8, so-called Super Tuesday; voters in those states will choose 1,300 delegates, nearly 40 per cent of the total Democrats who will go to next July’s convention in Atlanta. Iowans have not taken kindly to the controversy and they have left Gore trailing the Democratic field—a place where, some of his critics point out, he would have ended up anyway. Said state Democratic party spokesman Phillip Roeder: “A lot of the argument is plain and simple sour grapes from southerners.”

Other candidates have not dared to be so cavalier with Iowans, who seem to consider it only normal to have White House hopefuls drop by for morning coffee in their living rooms. By Jan. 15 the 12 contenders from both parties had spent an estimated 663 days in Iowa. Gephardt, the state’s most ardent campaigner—who has spent 121 days in the past year wooing Iowans—likes to say, “A day without Iowa is a day without sunshine.” And six months ago he even moved his mother, Loreen, 79, from St. Louis, Mo., to Des Moines to help him seduce the vote of senior citizens—a disproportionately large block who make Iowa the nation’s third most elderly state.

The bow-tied Simon, who led the state’s Democratic polls until last month, stumps rural 4-H clubs with his 26-yearold daughter, Sheila, and her husband of four months, Perry Knopp, an Illinois farmer. “You don’t need to worry about whether the farmer will have a voice in the Simon White House,” he says. “We’ll have one right in the family.” Dole has recruited thousands of his fellow Kansans to inundate their Iowa friends and relatives with personal letters pleading his case. In fact, campaign organizers estimated that all the candidates have bombarded Iowans with more than two million pieces of direct mail and blitzed homes with three million phone calls. And in recent weeks candidates have

parachuted in an estimated 800 paid organizers to blanket the state—a move that Roeder termed “an invasion of the body snatchers.”

As a result, some of the populace has become so canny about electioneering that one farmer sent Democratic contender Bruce Babbitt tips on how to improve his baby-pig-holding technique for television. Iowans in plaid shirts and baseball caps routinely drill candidates with sophisticated questions on nuclear warhead capabilities and arcane points

of the social security system. And last week, in the snack bar of a rural hamlet, the same political savvy greeted a clearly nervous young advance-man who had arrived to organize a two-day bus tour for Republican Marion (Pat) Robertson. “Don’t worry, deary,” said the store’s motherly owner. “I’ve had them all here. I’ll show you how to do it.”

Two enterprising Iowa businessmen have even jumped on the polling bandwagon. Prasong Nuruck, a former Bangkok lawyer who now operates Des Moines’s only Thai restaurant, invites his patrons to step into a curtained polling booth to express their thoughts on the candidates. So accurate have his samplings been that A Taste of Thailand recently determined the race’s leaders-

of-the-moment a full week before a CBSNew York Times poll. Last summer The Great Midwestern Ice Cream Co. —based in Fairfield, Iowa—also decided to capitalize on the caucuses. Montreal-born president Harris Kaplan dispatched a gigantic flag-bedecked icecream truck, called the Rolling Polling Station, through small towns. Customers could step into a “dipping booth” to register their political preferènces by flavor: for Hart, “Donna Rice Cream”; for Dukakis, “Massachewy Chocolate.” When Gore spurned Iowa, he charged that the caucuses had gotten so out of hand that politicians had to flatter its population and pander to noisy but marginal special-interest groups. Gephardt has shown up for coffee with prospective Democratic caucus-goers bearing the gift of a ceramic dog. And last week—in a state where only two per cent of the population is black or Hispanic—five Democratic hopefuls even took part in a Black and Brown Coalition debate in a Des Moines high school.

But Dixon Terry, a 38-year-old Greenfield dairy farmer who is chairman of the Iowa League of Rural Voters, argues that the state’s special-interest groups perform a valuable service for the nation. “We can more or less force the candidates to state what their positions are,” he said. “They can’t get through Iowa without laying it out specifically.” Deputy State Treasurer Michael Tramontina, a Democrat, notes that, with one of the best-educated populations in the country—whose high-school graduates lead the nation in test scores— Iowans are literate voters who take their democratic responsibilities seriously. And while the state’s bland image was not helped by a national report on food preferences two weeks ago that rated it the country’s Jell-O-eating capital, Roeder argues that national marketing firms have long used Iowa to test new products “precisely because it was typical Middle America.” Asked Representative Jack Kemp of New York, a Republican underdog: “What state

would you pick as typical?”

Iowa Democrats are certainly typical in one key respect: their discontent with the party’s crop of candidates. In fact, one citizens’ group is lobbying delegates to leave their caucus votes uncommitted to pave the way for drafting an undeclared candidate—like New York Gov. Mario Cuomo or even Kennedy—at the convention. However they vote, Iowans are clearly anxious not to lose the influence of their state’s quadrennial moment in the limelight. As nurse Sorensen put it,“I come from Montana, where there are mountains. All Iowa has got is this caucus, so we had better make the most of it.”