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AP - After all the campaigns’ sophisticated media tactics and high-tech maneuvering, Iowa voters offered the presidential candidates a version of Politics 101: In this state, stick to the basics.
“This couldn’t have happened in New York or California,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, commenting after the caucuses in which Barack Obama defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mike Huckabee beat Mitt Romney.
As the campaign signs were being torn down and miles of TV cable packed away Friday, strategists were sorting through the debris left by a round of precinct caucuses that reshaped the race for the White House.
Some lessons were clear, others more subtle:
Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but Iowa showed the need for other nutrition as well, particularly in a state where voters demand to see candidates in person. “Money will always be important in politics because it takes money to get your message out,” said veteran Democratic activist Joe Shannahan, but he noted that Huckabee demonstrated there’s more than one way to make your points.
Romney far outspent Huckabee. But the former Arkansas governor “had the opportunity to network with key constituencies, and it doesn’t cost any money to get your message out with those people,” said Shannahan. “Iowans are used to grass-roots politics. We do it every two years and that’s the way Iowans expect to be contacted.”
Speaking of key constituencies, more than half the people who showed up for Republican precinct caucuses described themselves as evangelical Christians, and eight of 10 who backed winner Huckabee described themselves in such terms. “For evangelicals, a lot of them felt they have had lip service and nothing else from Republicans for 25 years,” said Goldford. “They said it’s our turn now. That’s identity politics.”
Evangelicals rocketed to prominence in Iowa politics in 1988 when televangelist Pat Robertson energized them to earn a second-place showing, but their role has been quieter since then. The tightly organized church network solidified around Huckabee, who had only a fraction of Romney’s campaign machinery and organization. “The question was, in an era of big media and big money, is it possible to actually run a grass-roots campaign,” said Goldford. “This certainly suggests you can.”
WOMEN AND IOWA
“I think this was a tough state for Hillary Clinton,” said Dianne Bystrom, of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for the Study of Women in Politics at Iowa State University. “On any indicator, we’re really not a great state for women.” In fact, Iowa is one of two states that have never elected a female governor or sent a woman to Congress. Mississippi is the other. While Clinton did pretty well among blue-collar working women, she was swamped by an avalanche of younger voters—men and women—who favored Obama. “If you look at bread-and-butter women voters, they turned out for Clinton,” said Bystrom. “What Obama was really helped by was an influx of young women.”
The lesson may be generational. “Young women don’t have the same take on Clinton that I do,” said Bystrom. “They look at Clinton as their grandmother.”
Iowa is all about getting your supporters out on a cold winter night. For a caucus system that’s often accused of shutting people out, turnout was far beyond predictions, even if a relatively small fraction of the state’s 3 million residents showed up. Democrats said 239,000 came to their caucuses, nearly double the previous record. More than 116,000 Republicans turned out, up from about 87,000 in the last previous contested GOP caucuses in 2000.
Clinton seemed glad to leave Iowa’s caucus system behind, saying in New Hampshire on Jan. 4, “This is a primary election. You’re not disenfranchised if you work at night; you actually can come out and vote. You’re not disenfranchised if you’re not in the state; you can actually send in an absentee ballot. So this is going to be a much more representative electorate because we’ve got people who are going to be able to express opinions in the way we run elections in America.”
More upbeat, Mary Lundby, a former Republican legislative leader, said she visited several Linn County caucuses Jan. 3 and found them packed to the rafters. “It was very cool and we didn’t all wear seed corn caps,” she said.
The turnout disparity between Democrats and Republicans could be good news for the Democrats in the general election. Yet another beneficiary could be Sen. Tom Harkin, who faces election this year. He’s already ahead in money and lacking a big-name opponent, and the energy demonstrated by Democrats on caucus night probably brought a smile to his face. He sat out the Democratic contest, not endorsing anyone.
Bringing us to:
They don’t matter much. A popular former Democratic governor—Tom Vilsack—endorsed Clinton and campaigned tirelessly for her, as did the largest union representing state workers. Romney had the backing of former Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Gross and a slew of GOP state legislative leaders. Neither translated into backing at precinct caucuses.