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Iowa: presidential battleground cherishes 1st-in-nation status

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It is a sparsely populated and homogenous state where agriculture rules. But Iowa — equally disparaged and cherished as a folksy American backwater — remains a political titan, first in the nation in picking presidential candidates.

With nearly a year to go before the all-important Iowa caucuses, Democrats seeking the right to challenge President Donald Trump are already pouring in, impatient to raise their profiles in the state that will vote before any other in the 2020 primary process.

Retail politics is a rite of political passage here. Winning a presidential caucus can launch a candidate’s career into the stratosphere, while finishing back in the pack often prompts an inglorious exit.

But every four years, outsiders ask the same question: Why does a state with less than one percent of the US population, where the vast majority of residents are white, and which hosts an impenetrable voting system hold such a pivotal role in presidential selection?

Iowa’s image remains powerful in American lore: idyllic small-town life where faith, common sense and an open-hearted warmth prevail.

For decades Iowans have been the first to cast nomination votes, and they fiercely protect that status.

It is a privilege to see candidates “coming out, shaking hands, talking to people one on one,” Chris Henning, chairwoman of the Democrats in Greene County, told AFP.

“It is so important, at least in Iowa, that we meet the (candidates) and they meet us.”

Many experts see the prudence in winnowing the presidential field in Iowa.

Forcing candidates into face-to-face encounters — in coffee shops, at the famed Iowa State Fair, in voters’ living rooms — helps put the brakes on what has become a technology-driven, money-talks political culture.

“It humbles candidates,” said Iowa State University professor Steffen Schmidt, a veteran caucus observer.

Iowans “will pinch them and probe them just like they’re at a county fair” inspecting cattle, he added.

“It’s actually a pretty good training ground.”

Credibility at stake

2020 is shaping up to be an extraordinary year with a sprawling field of Democratic candidates, and Iowa party leaders are expecting record caucus turnout.

Officials are scrambling to book venues large enough to accommodate each of the 1,679 separate caucus meetings that will take place across the state next February 3.

“The caucuses have grown far beyond what they were ever intended to be,” argues John Deeth, a local Democratic activist who has worked with the party in Johnson County.

While Iowa is considering implementing major reforms for next year, including allowing absentee voters to participate online or by telephone, the caucus credibility is being put to the test.

Rumors have swirled that New Hampshire, which traditionally votes one week after Iowa, seeks to leapfrog into pole position.

The most populous state California, tired of being a virtual afterthought with its residents voting late in the process, has shifted its primary three months forward — joining several other states voting on March 3, 2020.

That means California’s early voting, which starts one month before the primary, will overlap with Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

Large, ethnically diverse California is such a massive market that contenders need deep pockets to compete, as reaching voters is primarily done through paid television advertising.

Iowa, by contrast, is a study in miniature, where candidates look voters in the eye and hone their political messaging.

But voter Anne Kinzel, 62, expressed worry about the influence of Iowa’s overwhelmingly white population in an increasingly diverse America.

“I’m concerned that we lose some candidates after Iowa and New Hampshire without the rest of the population, a more diverse population, getting a say,” Kinzel said.

Deeth believes much of the Iowa caucus spontaneity has dissolved, replaced by carefully calculated media appearances.

“Even diners are scheduled and staged,” he said of candidates’ stops at eateries that have become a part of Iowa’s political lore.

Out of Iowa

Iowa cemented its first-in-the-nation status quite by accident.

In 1972 the Democratic Party democratized its primary process, with voters, not party elites, choosing the nominees.

Iowa’s organizers, determining they needed months for their convoluted system to play out, leapfrogged ahead of New Hampshire, whose primary had opened the nominating process for decades.

Published in Daily Times, February 10th 2019.

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