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FIRST IN THE NATION
The Iowa Straw Poll: Republicans assemble in Ames
About the Iowa Caucuses
Blue becomes her
A jaded eye on the campaign trail
On the importance of the Iowa Caucuses
More on the Iowa Caucuses
Even as candidates munched corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair, rallied ISU students on central campus and in Hilton Coliseum, and traveled past rows of corn lining the highways of rural Iowa, the state's status as the first presidential caucus in the nation was in jeopardy. Other states were pushing up their caucus and primary dates. Iowa Republicans and Democrats responded by changing their Jan. 14 caucuses to Jan. 3. Political analysts called the early presidential caucuses "irrelevant" and a "greedy, stupid process." And so it went. But as we prepared this series of stories about how Iowa Staters are involved in the important process of electing this country's next president, Iowa was still scheduled to be first in the nation -- and candidates and their staffs were still swarming like flies in every small-town coffee shop and church basement. Just like always.
Text by Dave Gieseke, Kate Bruns, James McCormick, and Carole Gieseke. Photos by Jim Heemstra, Dennis Chamberlain, and Dave Gieseke.
The Iowa Straw Poll: Republicans assemble in Ames (Return to top)
An estimated 30,000 Iowa Republicans and onlookers attended the party’s straw poll on Aug. 11. Held in the Iowa State Center complex, the event’s circus-like atmosphere included an inflatable slide, a climbing wall, an Elvis impersonator, Ferris wheel rides, rock bands, and a whole lot of free food and give-aways.
After casting ballots, many found relief from the scorching heat inside Hilton Coliseum, where they had an opportunity to hear speeches by former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, Iowa Republican Party leaders, and eight presidential candidates (above).
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the straw poll with 31.6 percent of the vote. A total of 14,302 votes were cast.
Though some criticized the Republican Straw Poll as a “megabucks extravaganza” in which votes could be purchased by the highest bidder, USA Today called the event “a premier political happening of the summer.”
The Ames straw poll was established in 1979 as a fundraising event for the Iowa Republican Party, and it serves as an early, pre-Iowa caucus test of strength
for Republican presidential candidates.
About the Iowa Caucuses (Return to top)
Since the 1970s, the Iowa caucuses have become a crucial first step in the election of the U.S. president, starting with little-known Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s strong showing in 1976. Today, Iowans take their responsibility seriously, asking the tough questions, keeping up on the issues, and turning out for candidates’ frequent visits and speeches. According to the official Iowa caucus Web site, “a bad showing in Iowa will likely mean the end for prospective presidential candidates.”
Iowa roots: Four political science alumni work together on a major presidential campaign (Return to top)
Kent Lucken’s summer vacation wasn’t to some exotic locale or even a trip to Disney World.
Instead the 1986 political science graduate took a leave of absence from his Citigroup banking job in Boston and moved his family, including wife Kristen and two teenage sons, to Ames for the summer.
Lucken spent last summer as a special projects coordinator for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. There he was involved in the former Massachusetts governor’s strategy, polling, and voter operations – all leading to the Iowa Straw Poll in August.
“Iowans in the Republican Party are highly sought out by presidential candidates,” Lucken says. “I have worked with Gov. Romney in the past and I wanted to volunteer for him in his presidential bid. So we packed up the car and drove three days back here.”
Lucken wasn’t the only Iowa State political science alum to spend the summer in the state campaigning for Romney. Three other graduates served in the campaign in a senior capacity. Gentry Collins (’98) was Romney’s Iowa campaign manager, David Kochel (’92) was a senior adviser, and Brian Kennedy (’87) was a consultant to the campaign.
Like Lucken, the three were sought out to work on the Romney campaign because of their Iowa connections.
“This is my fourth presidential campaign,” Kennedy said. “My experience in Iowa politics is important because campaigns want to have people who know
Kennedy, Kochel, and Collins know the territory. All three have been involved with the Iowa Republican Party for years and each has served as the party’s state director.
Each has also worked with Gov. Romney in the past – Kennedy and Kochel on his gubernatorial campaign and Collins as the political director of the Republican Governor’s Association during the last election cycle at the same time Romney chaired that organization.
Collins also ran the Iowa Republican efforts in 2004, carrying the state for President Bush – the first time in 20 years that a Republican candidate had won Iowa. That made his services even more attractive to potential 2008 presidential candidates.
“I went around and met with several potential candidates,” Collins said. “Many decided not to run but after spending time with Gov. Romney and his key people I was immediately drawn to what he stood for.”
Collins and the others say their Iowa roots have helped them in their careers.
“If you really want to study political science, there is no better place than Iowa State,” Lucken said. “Here you get to choose a presidential campaign, get in on the ground floor, and then get to go out and ‘play’ in the field.”
“I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything,” Kochel said.
Blue becomes her: Iowa inspires political passion for students like Sarah Sunderman (Return to top)
"Oh, Sarah…I think you’re a Democrat."
Sarah Sunderman laughs now when she thinks about the conversations she had with her friends in high school. By the time she graduated from Iowa State, they promised, they would make her a Democrat.
Sunderman, who hadn’t paid much attention to politics in her first 17 years, fell in love with the campaign process during her senior year at West High School in Mankato, Minn. It was then that she “managed” her father’s campaign for school board and decided she had a penchant for politics.
“I got really into helping him pass out the literature,” she admits.
“One day I actually got on the Democratic Party’s Web site and read the whole platform,” she says. “That’s kind of how I decided. I read it and said, ‘Yeah, I agree with that.’”
Four years later, Sunderman’s got a collection of photos that includes images of herself with Secretary Madeleine Albright, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Not to mention Hillary Clinton, Sunderman’s candidate of choice for 2008. She’s definitely become a Democrat, and she’s soaked up every glorious ounce of experience there is to be had in one of the union’s most political states.
“I really like Iowa,” she says. “I talk it up wherever I go.”
Watching Sen. Clinton, whom Sunderman describes as her political role model, interact with Iowans has convinced her that Iowa is the right place to begin the process of choosing the commander-in-chief.
“People in Iowa are so informed about politics; they really step up to the plate,” she says. “They take time to research the candidate and to ask questions.”
Living in Iowa has also been a resume-booster for Sunderman, who interned with the Clinton campaign in Ames during the summer of 2007 and volunteered “like every day,” she says, at the Kerry-Edwards campaign headquarters during her first semester of college in 2004. In the summer of 2006, she and some high school classmates got their former teacher, Tim Walz, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Minnesota’s first district. Her involvement on campus with the ISU Committee on Lectures, Political Action Week, and the ISU Democrats has given her an up-close view of politics and politicians that she says is invaluable.
“I pretty much get involved in everything I can,” she says. “Everything I’ve done has given me different experiences. I’m very fortunate to be doing the political work I’m doing; it’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else.”
Dr. Politics: Steffen Schmidt offers insights based on 37 years of observing presidential politics in Iowa (Return to top)
Why the caucuses work:
“Iowa is the perfect place to launch a presidential campaign. It’s quaint and traditional, friendly but skeptical.”
“Iowans are used to being able to meet a candidate one-on-one and ask them the tough questions. We’re not intimidated at all by a U.S. senator, a former mayor of New York City, or a former first lady.”
Remembrances of caucuses past:
“Before the 1976 caucuses my wife and I were visiting with some friends at their rural house, and we were sitting under a shade tree. We looked down the long gravel road and saw this group of people on bicycles coming toward us. One gentleman came up to us and introduced himself, saying ‘Hi – I’m Jimmy Carter.’ That’s typical of what the Iowa caucuses are at their best.”
“In 1992, the caucuses were a bust because [Iowa Sen.] Tom Harkin was running and no Democrat paid the state any attention.”
“Probably the defining moment of the Iowa caucuses was Howard Dean’s ‘victory speech’ in 2004 (‘The Dean Scream’). That was a very famous moment.”
“If there was no television, the Iowa caucuses wouldn’t be what they have become. The interaction we Iowans have with the candidates is what makes the caucuses so interesting to the media and the general public. There are no handlers to form a defensive shield around a candidate. They have to
face Iowans who ask really tough questions and force them to face the real public.”
“Every four years the number of reporters, especially international reporters, grows by leaps and bounds. This year already I have been contacted by ITV, the BBC, CNN en Español, media from all over the world. Caucus night 2008 will be a nightmare.”
Getting the story:
“Every media outlet wants something. It’s gotten so bad that I’ll be talking to a friend in the media on caucus night – just him and me. Before we’re finished, I’ll have microphones shoved into my face from all directions. It’s like a bunch of cockroaches descending on a tasty snack.”
John McCain – “He’s in a lifeboat with an anchor dangled overboard.”
Joe Biden – “Let’s talk about candidates who can win – moving on now.”
Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani –
“If these two get their parties’ nomination, both bring huge negatives to the table, but the campaign will be fun to watch.”
Candidate spouses – “These are strong-willed and talented individuals who aren’t staying in the background.”
The future of the Iowa caucuses:
For the first time, Schmidt will teach a political science course on the Iowa caucuses.
“This may be my only chance to teach this type of course. In four years I may have to move up one floor [in Ross Hall] to the History Department, because that’s what the caucuses will be if the regional primaries become a reality.”
“The Iowa caucuses are so important to the presidential election process – we need to keep them. They have changed the way we elect a president for the better.”
Steffen Schmidt is a university professor of political science at Iowa State University. He is the co-host of the popular “Dr. Politics” radio show on WOI-AM and a frequent commentator on national political issues for media outlets across the nation, particularly his views on candidates during the Iowa caucuses.
A jaded eye on the campaign trail: Journalism professor discovers that politics isn't always pretty (Return to top)
Dennis Chamberlin was intrigued.
A photojournalist who had lived in states largely ignored by presidential candidates, Chamberlin moved to Iowa in 2005 and thought Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status presented him with a great photo opportunity.
“The last time I met a presidential candidate on the campaign trail was first time around for Reagan,” Chamberlin said. “You just don’t run into [candidates] in other states. [In Iowa], John Edwards and all these other candidates were showing up and it was still two years before the election. And then I started hearing that they don’t always go to these big halls and have huge crowds; sometimes they actually find themselves in people’s living rooms and backyard barbecues, so I started looking for situations like that. Because I think that’s something that’s really unique to Iowa, and I don’t believe we’re going to see it for much longer.”
So Chamberlin spent the summer following candidates around central Iowa (“It’s amazing how many people were within a half hour’s drive of my house, all summer long.”) But what he found was not the sincere, meaningful dialogue between politicians and Iowans that he expected. Instead – especially with the top candidates – he said he felt that events were essentially staged commercial productions and nothing more.
“After one quick summer of Iowa politics, I became cynical,” Chamberlin says. “I was really enthusiastic and so optimistic at the beginning of the summer, and all it took was about 2,000 photographs and
I became jaded.”
Nevertheless, Chamberlin plans to continue with his project, photographing candidates in the most intimate surroundings he can find. The closeness of the surroundings has led him to use a three-panel, panoramic style that he says gives him a human-eye view and allows him to shift the camera’s focus without the distortion of an ultra-wide-angle lens.
“Right now I’m trying to find a way to express what I feel about [the political process], but I don’t think I’ve found a way to put that jaded eye into the images yet,” Chamberlin said. “Ideally, some people would look at a photograph and say, ‘Oh, that’s really great,’ and another person would look at the same photograph and say, ‘Oh, man! Politics has been reduced to THAT?’ That’s what I want.”
On the importance of the Iowa Caucuses (Return to top)
In January, about 130,000 Democrats and 100,000 Republicans will brave a wintry night to meet in church basements, neighborhood schools, local town halls, and the homes of friends and neighbors to conduct their precinct caucuses and begin the 2008 selection of party nominees for president. As these caucuses roll around, pundits and observers always seem to ask the same questions: How is it that such precinct caucuses have become so important? Why have they maintained their significance for Iowa, candidates, and the nation’s political process for so long? As an Iowan and a long-time observer of politics in the state and nation, let me offer a few possible answers to these questions.
A little history provides one reason for how the caucuses became important. Fresh from the party reforms of the late 1960s, the Iowa Democratic Party decided to move up its 1972 precinct caucuses to the beginning of the campaign season.1 Sen. George McGovern did not win the Iowa caucuses that year, but his level of support proved instrumental in gaining attention to his candidacy and to his eventual winning of the Democratic presidential nomination. The long-shot campaign by a little-known Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, and his eventual win in the 1976 Iowa Democratic caucuses, more fully propelled the caucuses into the national limelight. The Iowa Republican Party soon followed suit, changing its precinct caucuses to match the time of the Democrats and initiating a “straw poll” for presidential contenders at them. By 1980, the Iowa caucuses were the “first-in-the-nation” for both political parties, and they quickly became a major media event. Since then, both political parties have fought hard to keep this first-in-the-nation designation (including this year) as a way to gain media attention, generate significant revenue for the state from each campaign, and preserve Iowa’s special place in the presidential selection process.
Yet Iowa’s role as the “first-in-the-nation” caucuses could not have lasted for more than three decades if it were not for the qualities that Iowans bring to this campaign process and the requirements that they place on presidential aspirants who visit the state.2 Iowans, as one of the most literate and politically informed sets of citizens in the union, expect their presidential candidates to engage in face-to-face exchanges with them. Thirty-second commercials or long-winded debate answers are not the ticket to political success in Iowa; instead, personal inter-actions between candidates and ordinary Iowans are a requirement for success in the Iowa caucuses. Moreover, presidential candidates have come to view this Iowa requirement of “retail politics” as an advantage for fine-tuning their campaigns and aiding them in future governing. Candidates invariably say that they are better equipped to understand the day-to-day concerns of the American public after going through the rigors of an Iowa caucus season.
Another reason why the Iowa caucuses have remained important is that they test candidates in another way. Since the caucus attendance is largely an organizational activity, candidates must not only have a compelling political message in their face-to-face meetings with Iowans, but they also need to develop and sustain a committed organization to help them. In this sense, they must enlist the support of Iowans, maintain that organization over the run-up to the caucuses, and get them to the schools, churches, and town halls in the middle of winter. Such an organizational requirement across Iowa’s 99 counties and roughly 2,000 precincts is a daunting task and offers good training for the campaigns that follow.
The Iowa caucuses perform an important “winnowing” function for the nation’s presidential selection process. While the winner of the Iowa caucuses may not always turn out to be the party’s nominee, candidates who do not perform well in the caucuses rarely gain the nomination. Hence, the Iowa caucuses’ principal
function has become to “winnow in” and “winnow out” prospective candidates for the presidency. In this sense, they perform an important role in shaping the electoral landscape in American politics for the election cycle. To be sure, the media complement this role for Iowans, since those important political actors judge whether candidates have done “as well as expected” or “better than expected.” Yet, ordinary Iowans still prove crucial in enabling the media to make those judgments, and their decisions can provide important momentum to a candidate or halt a candidacy in its tracks.
What have the caucuses meant to Iowa State? Many ISU alumni participate directly in the caucus activities of presidential candidates as advisers, organizers, and even as a candidate (as in the case of Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992). ISU students routinely serve as interns and campaign aides during each Iowa caucus cycle, and students from such diverse majors as engineering, agriculture, and political science can experience the presidential process first-hand. And, finally, ISU faculty members are regularly invited to comment on the meaning and importance of America’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
The Iowa Caucuses (Return to top)
“Every time a woman runs for president or gets appointed to a high-profile office, that sends a message to other women that political power and leadership is possible. Women can be competent, and they can be powerful.”
– Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, on the changing perception of women running for U.S. president
“I think the country takes its cues from Iowa because they know people in Iowa have spent more time listening to the presidential candidates than anybody.”
– Barack Obama, in an Oct. 9, 2007, article in the
Charles City Press written by Staci Schwickerath
"A day in Iowa isn't just a day in Iowa anymore. Now, a day in Iowa is a day on the national stage, with the level of attention and importance of the Iowa caucuses."
– JoDee Winterhof, Hillary Clinton's Iowa caucus campaign director, in an April 29, 2007 Des Moines Register article
"The Iowa caucuses have captured the attention of the media and the candidates because they are a vital first stop on the road to nomination. Many of the candidates and the press like the Iowa caucuses because of the good human nature of Iowans and the chance to really mix it up on a human personal level. The candidates' show at our State Fair last August could hardly be replicated in any other state."
– Charles Manatt ('58 sociology), former chair of the Democratic National Committee, co-chair of the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign, and former U.S Ambassador to the Dominican Republic
Iowa Staters for President
Two well-known Iowa State alumni have thrown their hats in the political ring: Henry A. Wallace and Tom Harkin.
Wallace ('10 animal husbandry, MS '26) was active in the federal government, having served as secretary of agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and later becoming Roosevelt's vice president. In Roosevelt's fourth term, Wallace was appointed secretary of commerce, a position he held until 1946. In 1948 Wallace ran for president as head of the Progressive Party. He lost to Harry Truman.
Thomas R. "Tom" Harkin ('62 government), longtime U.S. Senator from Iowa, ran for president in 1992. He won the Iowa caucus but eventually lost the Democratic Party nomination to Bill Clinton.
Where there are Iowans, there are candidates
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas (above) is interviewed outside Jack Trice Stadium prior to the Iowa State vs. Iowa game on Sept. 15. Brownback spoke to a crowd of Hawkeye and Cyclone supporters at the Iowa College Republican Federation tailgate party earlier in the day. A second presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also attended the Republican tailgate.
And the winner is...
When you watch the exit polls in November, it might be interesting to know that there’s an Iowa State face behind the numbers.
Allan McCutcheon (’72 sociology), a professor of survey research methodology at the University of Nebraska and an internationally known expert in polling survey and methodology, will have a leading role in November’s presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial exit polling. McCutcheon will serve as senior statistical director for Edison Media Research, the company contracted to conduct exit polling for the National Election Pool (NEP).
The NEP is a collaboration by all the major networks, the Associated Press, CNN, and Fox, who have all agreed to use the election pool for consistency and accuracy.
“In 2008 the U.S. electorate will have competitive presidential primaries in both parties for the first time since 2000,” said McCutcheon. In addition, it has been 80 years since neither the sitting president nor vice president has sought the nomination for president.
– From the University of Nebraska Office of University Communications
About the Writers and Photographers | Dave Gieseke is the director of communications and alumni relations for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Carole Gieseke is the editor of VISIONS magazine. Kate Bruns is the associate editor of VISIONS magazine. James McCormick is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Iowa State University. Jim Heemstra is a freelance photographer from Des Moines, Iowa. Dennis Chamberlain, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper and magazine photographer, is an assistant professor in ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication.