On Monday, Feb. 3, the 2020 Democratic presidential race officially begins in Iowa, with groups of neighbors gathering in more than 1,500 precincts to discuss and select 41 pledge delegates for the July National Democratic Convention in Milwaukee. These neighborly gatherings will take place in churches, schools, public building, private homes and probably even in a barn or two.
Because these caucuses are the first primaries in the country, Iowa gets the most attention. Consequently, those weekly, perhaps even daily, polls are dissected and projected by politicians and pundits in minute detail as they try to read the daily tea leaves of Iowa.
These political campaigns have been going on for more than a year, with seemingly a never-ending parade of candidates. In fact, at the Iowa Hall of Fame Celebration last June, there were 19 presidential candidates speaking. As the campaigns progress, these candidates proudly eat corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair, even as they pet the life-size butter cow sculpture. Then there are the endless stops at the city malls, the county fairs, the country diners and the rural farms.
In many ways, the political campaigns are as if “The Music Man” has come to life, right here in Carroll, River City, Dubuque, Des Moines, Clear Lake and Marshalltown. It is as if each candidate thought he/she ought to give Iowa a try. I enjoy following this campaign because I was born and raised in Iowa. So, I have a special connection when I see these candidates stopping in at the cafes and meeting halls I knew as a kid.
Just last Saturday, Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a town hall meeting in a Carroll restaurant that I still patronize when I return to Iowa to visit my family. In fact, all the candidates come to Carroll, a county seat with about 10,000 people in it. The editor of this newspaper, Doug Burns, told me that in the prior primaries, he had personally interviewed Barack Obama eight times, including once one-on-one in the Oval Office. That’s incredible access for a small-town reporter. Yet it is exactly those local newspapers that are so important to all the candidates. As a result, the reporters are in as much demand as the candidates.
With all the emphasis on Iowa, it should be no surprise that parts of the rest of the country resent this spotlight on Iowa. Neighbors like Nebraska and South Dakota, and perhaps most of the fly-over Midwest states, think they have been condemned to the shadows of the political netherworld, especially if their primaries do not take place until June. Iowa’s far-flung neighbors on the east and west coasts — those states with high population counts — are even more dumbfounded that Iowa, with a population of only 3 million, gets such disproportionate attention in the media and in the polls.
On the other hand, over the years, Iowa has proved to be a good bellwether for the flock of states following it. (Just ask Barack Obama.) There is a reason for that. Iowa’s caucus system in its own way scrubs the candidates to reveal those character traits that are important to voters all over the country. To quote Meredith Wilson’s song in The Music Man: “There’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you … which we may not do at all.”
But, once they do befriend the candidates, they will ask them to join them at the picnic, at the State Fair or even at the caucus. So, you really ought to give Iowa a try.