The path to the Presidency for Republicans always goes through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In recent history, to win the Republican nomination a candidate must win either in Iowa or New Hampshire and then prevail in South Carolina. The last election was the first time in 34 years that South Carolina did not choose the candidate, which was instead chosen by Florida.
As the first state Iowa holds a Caucus, which is simply a public meeting of the party’s voters to select their favored nominee. But participating is a bit more complicated than simply casting a ballot, so experience in the process is helpful. There is normally no ballot.
New Hampshire holds the first in the nation Primary election. Attempts by other states to move in front of them has resulted in long time Secretary of State Bill Gardner simply scheduling New Hampshire earlier and earlier to stay in front. He is required by state law to do so.
Iowa, like my home state of Texas, is a state developed by the railroads in the 19th century which established small towns every ten miles or so as they constructed rail lines throughout the state. Many of these small towns were created similar to the small town of McDade, Texas, (pop 250) where I grew up. In 2008 I campaigned for President by visiting 3,000 businesses in 142 of these towns and cities in 79 of 99 counties. In one small town I visited a farmer’s co-op. While talking to the man in charge, an employee at the other end of the counter studied me for a while and then asked: “are you lost”? The town was quite remote.
And in Iowa farming of course is the dominant industry. In a very sophisticated way. Corn rows are laid out by GPS to maximize yield. And unlike Texas where rolls of hay until recently were simply stacked in a field, in Iowa they are covered in plastic because snow on top of them for a period of time would damage the hay.
In Iowa locals seldom wear ties and can easily spot those from out of state who do so. Presidential candidates except in very formal situations rarely do either. My theory is that this evolved from safety concerns of being around tractors. When I was a boy tractors were built with a spinning metal rod at their rear called a power takeoff which served as a power source for equipment that was attached behind it. Growing up we all heard of injuries caused by clothing which became tangled in this rapidly spinning rod which operated as a tourniquet against the victim. A tie worn would be the easiest to become tangled. So it is my theory that with the prevalence of tractors throughout Iowa for safety reasons Iowans quite wisely simply quit wearing ties.
Iowa has an annual state fair in August and with each candidate’s campaign heating up, all attend and stop by the Pork Producers tent for a photo op while flipping the inch thick pork chops which are sold at the fair. Candidate Mitt Romney dropped by and soon flipped one to the floor. Without missing a beat he picked it up and placed it back on the grill. Whereupon the supervisor removed it and disposed of it. The unplanned photo op became one more piece of evidence showing Romney not to be in sync with the average voter.
And since food is Iowa’s major industry, the significant culinary skills of Iowans are sometimes showcased at fundraisers. In 2008 at one event where I shared a speaking spot with Congressman Tom Latham, pies were auctioned off to raise funds for the county party. For hundreds of dollars apiece.
Most in Iowa have German backgrounds. Of Iowa’s three million plus population over one third are German.
So as one might expect, many Iowans are either Lutheran or Catholic. With 294 churches having 1,642,344 members, Catholics make up 503,080; Methodists make up 235,000; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America members make up 229,577 and Missouri Synod Lutherans make up 105,148.
Yet with an Iowa population of 3,046,355, only 121,501 or 4% voted in the 2012 Iowa Caucus. So it normally takes only about 35,000 votes for any candidate to prevail in that contest. Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 with 40,954 votes to Romney’s 30,021. Santorum won Iowa in 2012 with 29,839 to Romney’s 29,804.
Each Iowa voter in the Caucus is very serious and requires a direct contact with the candidate. From this it is easy to see why there is a saying in Iowa that each candidate must shake the hand of an Iowa voter twice to obtain that person’s vote. Every vote has an outsized impact. And because of this system any candidate working hard to meet voters face to face has at least a fighting chance.