Making hay in Iowa, politically speaking


DES MOINES — In ev­ery pres­i­den­tial elec­tion sea­son, Iowa is a po­lit­i­cal stage set. With its sprawl­ing farms, lit­er­ate vot­ers, un­for­get­ta­ble fried pork-ten­der­loin sand­wiches, wild-eyed lib­er­als, and de­vout re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives, the state and its cau­cuses pro­vide a pic­tur­esque set­ting for can­di­dates who are scram­bling for a mo­ment of at­ten­tion and hop­ing to be trans­formed by prai­rie dust from im­prob­a­ble to in­ev­i­ta­ble.

Then ev­ery­one zips out of here as fast as pos­si­ble and promptly for­gets about the state for an­other four years.

Not this time. Iowa has emerged as one of about 10 swing states in the gen­eral elec­tion. This time, the nom­i­nees are re­turn­ing — not once, but of­ten — for an en­core turn on the Iowa stage.

This fall, farm­ers work­ing late at har­vest time aren’t the only Iowans whose lights are il­lu­mi­nat­ing the wide night skies here. Cam­paign work­ers are work­ing late too.

Sel­dom has so much po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity been in­vested by so many po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ists for what would seem to be so lit­tle po­lit­i­cal pay­off. But sud­denly, Iowa’s six lit­tle elec­toral votes are the elec­toral ver­sion of blue rib­bons at the state fair. They’re big prizes.

The elec­tion is that close — and was long be­fore the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate cat­a­pulted Mitt Rom­ney into a vir­tual tie with Pres­i­dent Obama.

“The de­bates af­fect do­nors and mo­bi­lize ac­tiv­ists here,” says Bar­bara Tr­ish, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Grin­nell Col­lege, some 60 miles east of Des Moines. “But I bet on Elec­tion Day the state will still be un­cer­tain. We won’t know who won Iowa un­til late that night.”

Which is why this month Mr. Rom­ney vis­ited teeny Van Meter (pop­u­la­tion 1,073), best known as the home of fire­balling pitcher Bob Feller. Mr. Obama paused in Mount Ver­non (pop­u­la­tion 4,506), where or­di­nar­ily the big­gest thing in town in Oc­to­ber is the chili cook-off.

Iowa isn’t used to caus­ing late-night jit­ters for pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns.

Early 20th-cen­tury Sen. Jon­a­than Dol­li­ver once pro­claimed with con­fi­dence that “Iowa will go Demo­cratic when Hell goes Meth­od­ist.” Un­til re­cently, Re­pub­li­cans ruled with lit­tle chal­lenge in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

Now, Iowa is a clas­sic swing state, be­fit­ting a ter­ri­tory that was one of the first in the na­tion to prac­tice crop ro­ta­tion.

Iowa sends one sen­a­tor of each party to Wash­ing­ton. The House del­e­ga­tion con­sists of three Dem­o­crats and two Re­pub­li­cans. One cham­ber of the state leg­is­la­ture is con­trolled by Dem­o­crats, the other by Re­pub­li­cans — and the state Senate has 25 Dem­o­crats and 24 Re­pub­li­cans.

Re­tired Iowa state his­to­rian Doro­thy Sch­wie­der ti­tled her 1996 book Iowa: The Mid­dle Land. She sketched Iowa as con­ser­va­tive in pol­i­tics but lib­eral in so­cial out­look — and al­ways choos­ing a mid­dle ground.

“Iowa, un­like Mid­west­ern states to the east, has not be­come pre­dom­i­nantly in­dus­trial and un­like Mid­west­ern states to the west, has not re­mained mostly ag­ri­cul­tural,” she wrote. “Rather, in pol­i­tics, in eco­nom­ics, in so­cial val­ues and so­cial ac­tions, Iowa can still be de­fined as the mid­dle land.”

The mid­dle ground is a re­cur­rent theme in this state, whose 55,869 square miles pro­vide fully a quar­ter of the top-grade ag­ri­cul­tural land in the coun­try.

So­cial move­ments have moved across Iowa like the four gla­ciers that shaped it — re­cur­rent farm re­volts, the So­cial Gospel, Pro­hi­bi­tion, mod­ern lib­er­al­ism, and then a surg­ing re­li­gious con­ser­va­tism that has sur­passed main­line Prot­es­tant­ism in its po­lit­i­cal if not its so­cial in­flu­ence.

The re­sult is the un­pre­dict­abil­ity in Iowa pol­i­tics that we are see­ing this au­tumn.

The state boasts a unique po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter. Vot­ers meet can­di­dates ca­su­ally but study their po­si­tions slowly and se­ri­ously.

Its po­lit­i­cal cul­ture is grounded in the land — steak cook­outs and hog-judg­ing con­tests, de­bates about prize roost­ers, pic­tures in front of the an­nual but­ter cow — and in the per­sonal ties that flour­ish in a small state with a ru­ral cul­ture.

This year, the cam­paign has gone dig­i­tal, with both cam­paigns mount­ing so­cial-me­dia ef­forts. Demo­cratic Sen. Tom Har­kin sent a mass email urg­ing Obama sup­port­ers to back the Pres­i­dent in early vot­ing, which be­gan Sept. 27. Some went to peo­ple who had al­ready voted.

Four years from now, those sorts of sna­fus won’t hap­pen. But four years from now, a gen­u­ine gen­eral-elec­tion cam­paign might not hap­pen here ei­ther.

Iowans are mak­ing hay now (and bal­ing wheat straw) — tons of it, and some of it is po­lit­i­cal.

David Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-Ga­zette.

Con­tact him at:dshrib­man@post-ga­