Opinion: Why Iowa Still Matters

I get at least one phone call from a major media outlet about Iowa and presidential politics every singled day.

No doubt we are still serving the two main purposes for which the first-in-the-nation caucuses were created. First, we give America and the world an “off-off Broadway” stage on which all the presidential contenders can perform. They are scrutinized, written about, and their acting skills are tested here in small town meetings, slaughterhouses, at churches, cafes and town hall meetings.

They kiss piglets, children, eat deep fried food on sticks, and proclaim their philosophy, values, and are tested for their organizational skills. Being partly an agricultural state we also watch to see if the candidates are smart enough not to step on the political cow pies that litter the Iowa landscape. When they do the picture goes viral! Then the press reports on these “performances” including the missteps, and these reports help to shape the national assessment of the candidates. When they leave Iowa after caucus night, they go on to “off Broadway” (New Hampshire and North Carolina,) and if they perform well there they get to go to the Broadway of politics - a national campaign.

Iowa helps winnow down the field of presidential wannabes, which is always ridiculously large, by letting the nation judge their performances in the Hawkeye State. No doubt by February 2012 when the Iowa Caucuses are scheduled, several of the Republicans who remain in the race will give up. Heck, Iowa has already done a job there! Donald Trump, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, George Pataki, Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush, Thaddeus McCotter, and many other prospective GOP contenders decided not to run partly because they did not want the intensive scrutiny of the Iowa political experience. Here in Iowa we don’t let them just run a media campaign, carefully control their image, and spin it all. In Iowa we have the self-confidence as citizens and the proximity to the candidates to exercise due diligence as citizens. We ask tough questions EVERY SINGLE DAY that a candidate is in the state.

When Michelle Bachmann tried to control access to her by staying in an air-conditioned bus and coming out only at the last minute to give her hair-perfect speeches she was roundly criticized by local folks in Iowa (“she wouldn’t even have lunch with us” one guy said) and then the media. She immediately changed her routine. “Came out” of the bus and attended the ISU-Iowa football game. Most recently she showed up at a slaughterhouse and carved up some steaks. That’s what Iowa does to national big shots who think they can just spin their image

Of course at that meat locker she also criticized government regulations and meat inspection for bacterial contamination, which probably was not reassuring to many folks who eat meat and would prefer it to be inspected. But that’s what Iowa is for. Let the candidates be themselves and catch them in those off guard moments. In so many ways large and small we make it possible for Americans to have a better choice with a smaller field of candidates. And, even when Iowa activists finally make their choices on caucus night we don’t actually “choose” the next presidential candidate. Often as with Mike Huckabee in 2008 we don’t get our way and the candidate who wins in Iowa does not get the nomination. That too is how it should be since it makes no sense for small Iowa to be the kingmaker. To switch metaphors, we are just the skirmishes that candidates must survive before the larger battle for victory.

To those candidates who complain about the Iowa process I would share the aphorism attributed to writer Mark Skousen "If you can't take the sting, don't reach for the honey." And Iowa is pure political honey!

An earlier, shorter version of this piece appeared in the Ames Tribune, September 23, 2011.

Steffen W. Schmidt is University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University and Chief Political Correspondent of Insider Iowa.