My Post-Intelligencer coverage of Iowa’s mid-winter presidential caucuses would begin with a chilly start to the day. The temperature was frequently below zero and buttressed by a wind chill factor in the north-facing parking lot of the Holiday Inn just outside of Ames.
Since little-known former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter scored a surprise win in 1976, the Hawkeye State has come to symbolize the retail phase of America’s presidential campaigns. It’s been the scene of early flameouts. Ex-Vice Presidents Mike Pence and Dan Quayle gained no traction and were gone long before caucus night. So was Joe Biden in his first presidential run, 37 years ago. But Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have launched successful runs for the White House in mid-winter Iowa.
The Democrats have dumped Iowa in this cycle: too white in its population, too red in its politics, too rural in its economy. They’ve preferred a launch in South Carolina, which rescued Joe Biden in 2020. But the Republicans are back in Iowa, with GOP caucuses slated for January 15. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken his chilly presence to all 99 counties. Donald Trump has preferred a few big rallies in which followers give him a reception that would have sent Hitler to bed happy.
I covered six Iowa caucus cycles in days when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer could afford to send me on the road. Our executive editor (later publisher) J.D. Alexander saw it as an investment. We could be players and get to know candidates and handlers early in the game. An early trip out with Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart soon reaped rewards when a Florida dalliance aboard the yacht Monkey Business caused Hart’s campaign to implode.
Iowa proved a pleasant place to work, at least in summer and fall days before caucuses convened in January. Its voters took seriously the job of candidate vetting. You could hang out after the candidate departed, talking to polite people about their impressions and comparisons. I frequently met folks whose offspring had decamped to technology jobs in the Pacific Northwest. (The census has cost Iowa three of its congressional seats in recent years.)
Candidates experience tougher sledding. A presidential campaign is big leagues, less forgiving of gaffes. One-on-one courtship requires the patience of Job. After eight years in the White House, the Clintons of 2008 were regal in contrast to the retail days of 1992. Hillary spent 40 minutes courting one Davenport-area Democratic activist, only to get no commitment. She was left in a memorably sour mood.
The 1980 caucuses saw George H.W. Bush upset Ronald Reagan, but “Poppy” Bush stumbled eight years later. The elder Bush, challenged to explain a slow-starting campaign, said his supporters were distracted by getting in a last tennis game or attending their daughters’ cotillions. He made unconvincing efforts to sound down home, talking about his taste for pork rinds and how he had become a more demonstrative Christian.
Gaffes keep coming. Texas Gov. Rick Perry surged briefly in the 2012 cycle, until on a debate stage he could not name one of the three cabinet departments he was pledging to abolish. Choosing her birthplace of Waterloo to announce, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told Fox News: “John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That’s the kind of spirit that I have, too.” It turns out the Duke was born in Winterset while serial killer John Wayne Gacy came from Waterloo.
There is the struggle to be recognized. Ex-Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a longshot 1988 contender, signed up for a mid-winter bicycle event. The cyclists rode into a wicked windstorm. Babbitt had to put on a mask, which made him look like the Dr. Hannibal Lecter character in The Silence of the Lambs.
Iowa is a state with political micro-climates. Its Democrats tend toward anti-war liberals. The Republicans run to the evangelicals. Washington, D.C., columnist Robert Novak covered successive caucuses by tracking which candidate was successfully courting leaders of the religious right. A mega-church in West Des Moines held its own cattle call of GOP candidates in each cycle.
Northwest Iowa is very conservative and Republican. Iowa City and Ames, university towns, turn out Democratic caucus goers. The state’s meat packing plants have given Iowa a sizeable Latino population. Des Moines is an insurance industry center: The Des Moines Register copiously covers the caucuses and is renowned for the accuracy of its polling.
Waterloo and Marshalltown are industrial towns that have seen better days. Newton was suffering the shutdown of its Maytag factory two months before the 2008 caucuses. By contrast, Johnston is prospering as home to Corteva, the largest seed corn producer in the world. Its public schools are topnotch, with savvy high school teachers recruiting presidential hopefuls as classroom speakers.
Some candidates never catch on: Others manage to alienate Iowans. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, in his brief 2019 foray into presidential politics, proved a hit with MSNBC hosts in New York but drew almost no support in Iowa. Bill Bradley was hit with his Senate votes on ethanol subsidies. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis drew guffaws by suggesting that hard-pressed corn and soybean farmers try growing Belgian endive.
In 2004, volunteers from all over the country flooded Iowa to boost liberal Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean. They arrived late, didn’t know the terrain, and made a negative impression. Dean ended up falling to third behind John Kerry and John Edwards. His “Dean scream” speech on caucus night, aimed at bolstering the troops, doomed the campaign.
Sixteen years earlier, the senior Bush came through the Mississippi River town of Keokuk. He was to be feted at a reception in the blufftop home of a local banker and onetime University of Iowa football star. With downtime, I prowled downtown with the New York Times‘ Michael Oreskes. We happened upon a Christian bookstore. Its proprietor proudly showed a picture of herself with Pat Robertson and recounted Rev. Pat’s visits to the town. Robertson won Keokuk going away. Bob Dole won the caucuses.
Iowa is also a place where candidacies can catch fire. The state’s Democrats hold a big annual dinner. The 2007 event featured an evening-long lineup of presidential hopefuls. The Clinton campaign, carrying a big lead, spurned urgings of its veteran Iowa coordinator Teresa Vilmain and invested little in the event.
The Clintons would pay – dearly. Barack and Michelle Obama marched on the arena at the head of a marching band with a horde of supporters. Hillary gave an insider’s partisan speech and touted her experience. Obama was last up, bringing down the house with a call to heal the nation’s divisions. He went on a roll, eventually boosting caucus turnout to 230,000 Democrats and turning around the race.
The Republicans’ winners in Iowa have not fared as well. The elder Bush was blown out by Reagan in New Hampshire. In turn, the 1988 caucuses saw Dole beat Bush, only this time Bush staged a comeback in the Granite State. Mike Huckabee won in 2008, but quickly disappeared. Ted Cruz narrowly bested Trump in 2016 – the loser, of course, claimed he was robbed – only to see Trump win New Hampshire in a landslide. Mitt Romney came up short twice and had to live down a corporations-are-people gaffe at the Iowa State Fair.
The caucuses draw attention from all over the world. Undecided voters get produced for network anchors to interview. The Washington Post targeted one place with a team of reporters, producing: “The battle for Fort Dodge.”
Undecided voters get ushered into the presence of network TV anchors. The media’s “bigfeet” dine at a swanky restaurant in downtown Des Moines. Carnivores from the written press used to gather and gossip at a long table in the Iowa Beef Steak House. By 2008, however, regional media had largely disappeared.
Reporters have committed gaffes along with the candidates. Appearing on the Today Show hours after Bush’s 1980-win, NBC Correspondent Tom Pettit pronounced Ronald Reagan politically “dead.” The National Inquirer scooped mainstream news organizations in 2008, reporting John Edwards’ liaison with his campaign videographer and subsequent parenthood.
Still, the close-up look at our leaders in Iowa is fascinating and revealing. I copped an interview with Bob Dole as he was driven from Des Moines to an outdoor candidates’ meeting at a rickety minor league baseball park in Ottumwa. We arrived behind the stadium with almost nobody in view. A furious Dole dressed down his young coordinator for “wasting my time.” The kid’s face turned red. A moment later, however, the car rounded the corner and faced the stands, which had a full turnout of persuadable Republicans.
Dole instantly changed moods, emerging from the car with a big grin. Despite his physical disability, the senator clambered up through the bleachers while four other hopefuls remained seated, and stone faced on the stage. He repeated the same line to voter after voter: “We need a farmer in the cabinet.”
Dole was in a happy mood driving back to Des Moines. He did not, however, apologize to his young handler. The country had its introduction to the snarling Dole a couple weeks later when he appeared with Bush the night of New Hampshire’s primary. Asked if he had any words for the Vice President, Dole snapped: “Yeah, stop lying about my record.”
Iowa may be “fly over” country to those who live and work on the coasts, but the initial vetting of our would-be presidents is done by a fairly small turnout of caucus goers in a not-too-prosperous corner of Middle America. I have warm memories of cold days on the trail.