Posted by: trevormeers | January 3, 2012

Will Newt & Mitt Still Call Me On Wednesday?

(Image from MSNBC.com)

Every four years, the national media inevitably measures presidential contenders by asking some variation of, “Which candidates can motivate voters to venture out on an Iowa winter night and voice their support?”

This line always makes me feel tougher as the Iowa Caucuses kick off the nation’s next presidential race. I feel my pioneer blood coursing when coastal media elites paint Iowans as hardy folk who normally duck into our sod houses at sundown, crawl under quilts by the woodstove and dare not emerge until the sun once again rises over the corn crib. It would just ruin a good myth if the media ever really get to know Iowa and realize that things as simple as a good sale at Kohl’s or a YMCA dodgeball league have been known to draw Iowans out of their holes on frigid evenings.

For Iowans, caucus night culminates a nearly year-long process. If you’re a registered Republican voter, for example, your phone has been ringing constantly over the last month with robo calls from candidates, or their thinly veiled surrogate PACs, asking for support or asking whom you may “caucus for.” We’ve personally been averaging a good four or five calls per day. The nature of the calls shifts like boats riding a tide. When Gingrich shot ahead, the phone rang to let us know that Obama is salivating at the thought of running against Newt. Then Rick Santorum made a late surge, and new calls started telling us that if we thought Newt was shifty, then we haven’t met Rick. The recorded voices are friendly enough that if I were a lonely shut-in, I could probably imagine they’re actual friends who really care about my feelings. One nice recorded lady sounded like she was getting ready to give me a flu shot when she said, “This poll will take 1 minute. Promise!” She got so caught up in listening to what keys I was pressing that she almost forgot the business part and stuck in at the end, “Oh, and I need to tell you. This call was paid for by Mitt Romney for President.”

It hasn’t been easy for Iowa to maintain this political pole position. Other states keep trying to steal our first-in-the-nation status, so Iowa keeps moving the date earlier to keep those barbarians in New Hampshire in their place. This year’s caucus on Jan. 3 is the offspring of the 1996 edition held on Feb. 12. I view the ever-earlier caucuses as the yin to the yang of college football bowl games, which used to be played on New Year’s Day and now stretch to somewhere around Valentine’s Day. Eventually, the caucuses may get so early that they lap themselves, and we’ll save everyone a lot of hassles by caucusing for both the 2016 and 2020 elections simultaneously on Thanksgiving Day in 2015.

During his 2003 Iowa run, Howard Dean used the traditional "Grill the Pork Chop" strategy before turning to the more radical "Rebel Yell" approach.

It’s undoubtedly entertaining to live in a state that sees all the candidates in the flesh. Mercy, do we see them. You can’t swing a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair in August without hitting some candidate standing on a hay bale and bellowing about how they alone have the guts to change Washington. Iowans witnessed the live version of Howard Dean’s WWF-style shriek in Des Moines in 2004, and one of my co-workers personally bonded with Elizabeth Edwards in 2007, back before John admitted to cheating on her while she was fighting terminal cancer. But my permanent Iowa caucus image is Dick Gephardt standing in a swirling cloud of smoke coming off a giant grill at the Iowa Pork Producers’ tent, doing his best impression of an everyman with a spatula while the wind teased his too-perfect hair and the smoke infiltrated his perfectly pressed Brooks Brothers Oxford shirt. You could almost hear him muttering to an aide, “Do people without chefs always have to cook this way?”

But even with all these candidates popping out of our bushes and cafes asking for votes, we keep a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the presidential machine. We know most national politicians care about our state’s concerns about as much as that furniture salesman really is fascinated by stories customers tell about their grandkids while shopping for a bedroom set.

The press corps displays its favorite sport of "cafe packing" during a Romney stump speech.

We don’t expect the election followers to hang around any more than we think the carnies will stick in Iowa after the state fair wraps up. On Wednesday morning, downtown hotels, then rental car counters, then airport gates all empty themselves of journalists and political operatives bound for New Hampshire. The trucks with giant satellite dishes on top disappear from outside the state capitol. The storefronts rented by campaigns go dark, and the high-end steakhouses and hotel bars sit down to count their record-setting receipts. National magazines quit publishing sloppy pieces in which malcontent professors declare Iowans a bunch of meth-addicted rubes.

In other words, things settle back into their normal Iowan rhythm, and we sit back to watch from afar to see if our pick can make it all the way to the party nomination. Then we start waiting to see whether Obama will survive his challenger. Because if Barack’s wrapping up a second term in 2016, that means two parties’ worth of candidates arriving in 2015 to chase the White House. And that means we’d better start ordering extra tenderloins now for all the photo ops.

Coming tomorrow: A frontline report from the caucus of the Clear Creek-Poweshiek precinct in rural Iowa, where a lady named Pearl became a conference delegate and John Huntsman got exactly zero votes.

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