More Than Tall Corn

More Than Tall Corn

Iowa deserves praise, not opprobrium, for its presidential caucus system.

To: Matt Strawn
       Chair, Iowa 
       Republican Party


Dear Chairman Strawn:

As a native Iowan, I want to come to the defense of your state’s political process. Anyone driving through Iowa, and particularly if the driver is coming down Interstate 35 from Minnesota, will be struck by the ever-increasing number of electricity-generating windmills. Seeing large wind-driven devices naturally makes one think of politics.

Because Iowa is in the “heartland” of the country, accessible to media on both coasts, and because it is generally the first step in the presidential nominating selection process (Republicans allow earlier caucuses in Alaska and Hawaii), the results of the Iowa caucuses have an outsized impact on the subsequent nomination process. 

It is not just corn that grows tall in Iowa in the summer—it is also the place where candidates’ stories grow. In early June, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign had a complete meltdown in the state of Iowa (who knew?), losing his top campaign leadership and Iowa campaign staff. (Maureen Dowd’s column in the June 12 New York Times probably will prove to have been his death knell. Google “Newt Loves Callista.” Callista is his wife, and apparently a key reason for his campaign’s implosion.) Without the mass resignation of his Iowa staff, Newt, in salamander-like fashion, might otherwise have been able to crawl through the subsequent nomination process. 

There are a number of Mormons running for the GOP nomination. One of them, former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, believes in global warming and civil unions; he’s also opposed to ethanol subsidies. He’ll skip the Iowa caucuses. The other, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, used to support civil unions, used to believe in global warming, and used to support health coverage with mandated fees. He has decided to skip the Republican straw vote to be held in mid-August.

And it is true that a number of candidates pitching their credentials to religious fundamentalists have done well in recent Iowa caucus voting. Mike Huckabee won in 2008, Alan Keyes did surprisingly well (a strong third-place showing) in 2000, and Pat Buchanan came in second in 1996, as did Pat Robertson in 1988. While all these candidates flamed out in subsequent primaries, many of them did go on to successful careers on Fox TV. 

But generally speaking, the process in noncaucus states is nothing more than nationally financed 30-second TV ads. Thus, while the race may not go to the smartest and most able, it does go to the candidate best able to raise huge amounts of money to run increasingly negative TV ads. This is hardly a system that is superior to the Iowa caucuses.

In fact, the Iowa caucus system emphasizes small-group meetings with highly informed voters questioning, face-to-face, the actual candidate for president. I have been able to discuss with several of these candidates their impression of the Iowa caucus system, and uniformly they report that it is extremely searching, and requires a great mastery of policy detail (and, of course, support for ethanol). 

Candidates like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama needed to prove themselves in Iowa to be credible later in the nomination process. By the same token, former Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (a fellow native Iowan) can receive a needed boost to their presidential aspirations if they do well in your state. 

Iowa does not generally give us candidates like Eliot Spitzer or Rudy Giuliani. Anthony Weiner would be laughed out of Iowa sooner than he would be laughed out of Congress. And while John Edwards came in second in 2008, he basically tied with Hillary Clinton to come in behind Obama. 

No, Iowa is a place for thoughtful and extended political debate between candidates and voters who are civic minded and politically aware. Iowa gives the little guy (or woman) a chance. Those who criticize the Iowa caucus system should read Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process, by David P. Redlawsk, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan (University of Chicago Press, 2011). 

As I write this, I am sitting in the Dubuque Holiday Inn. As a native Iowan, now a resident of Minnesota, I write to tell you that I’m giving some consideration to the formation of a committee to determine whether I should enter your caucus process as a candidate. I’ll ask Tim Pawlenty to be vice president. 


Politically yours,

Vance K. Opperman
An Iowa Supporter


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