Why Everything Is Up for Grabs in Iowa

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 16 2012 8:09 AM

The Psychological State of Iowa

The Hawkeye State launched Obama in 2008 and doomed Romney. How Iowans are feeling this time around will be crucial.

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Barack Obama speaks at a town hall style meeting at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, in 2011

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

DES MOINES, Iowa—A stenciled portrait of Barack Obama hangs on the wall of his Iowa headquarters. The blue and red image was painted on drywall in his Iowa campaign offices in 2008. It echoes the famous Shepard Fairey poster and that first campaign when any treatment of the candidate's image could seem instantly iconic. Brad Anderson, Obama’s current Iowa state director, cut it out and hung it in the campaign’s 2012 location: a defunct Blockbuster video store that still has the mirrors on the ceiling used to thwart shoplifters. It’s somewhat poetic: The Obama campaign is trying to rekindle its old glory in the shell of one of the businesses that went belly up during the economic downturn. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Iowa was the emotional center of the 2008 Obama campaign. The state launched him when he beat Hillary Clinton in the caucuses. Obama went on to win the general election in Iowa by 10 percentage points, but that margin of victory was out of character for the state. President Bush narrowly won Iowa by 10,000 votes in 2004 after having lost it by less than 5,000 votes in 2000. Now, like the rest of the country, Iowa is reverting back to its normal condition—a 50/50 state with narrow electoral margins. The latest polls show Obama and Romney in a dead heat

In every calculation of how the candidates get to 270 electoral votes, Iowa is listed as a battleground state. But it's also a swing state. States like Pennsylvania and North Carolina will be contested by both sides, but the competition there will be more about turning out each party’s base and topping those operations with success among the small number of swing voters. Winning in Iowa will be about courting the large number of moderate voters who are up for grabs. There are more registered independents in the state than registered Republicans or Democrats. Ten percent said they were up in the air, according to a recent NBC/Marist poll that had Romney and Obama tied at 44 percent.

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At this stage in the campaign, the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids media markets have been some of the most saturated in the nation with political advertisements. The state is so close that both sides even use the same language to talk about it. "It started here and it ends here," says Sue Dvorsky, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party explaining why Obama will win. In an interview I did this week for CBS's Face to Face, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said, "We're the state that launched Obama but I think in this election we're the state that's going to sink him."*

If Iowa has emotional resonance for the president, it has a similar loaded history for Mitt Romney, who will end his six-state bus tour in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday. Iowa was central to Romney’s 2008 campaign. He spent $10 million and blanketed the state. Mike Huckabee swooped in and stole his lunch, beating him in the caucus and marking the beginning of the end for the 2008 Romney campaign.

In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Romney had trouble with Iowa's evangelical voters. Polls show solid support among Republicans. "When President Obama endorsed same sex marriage that changed it like that for anyone who was nervous about Mitt Romney," says Gov. Branstad, snapping his fingers. 

There are other reasons evangelicals will be motivated. In 2010, social conservatives worked together to unseat three judges who had overturned the state's same-sex marriage ban. Another judge, David Wiggins, is up for re-election in this cycle and the same organization of social conservatives are gunning for him. Wiggins is pugnacious and spoiling for a fight, so the race is likely to stir up some news coverage. It's unlikely the gambit will be successful, but committed evangelicals will turn out. While they're at the voting booth, they're likely to vote for Romney, too.

Romney also benefits from Steve King. The firebrand GOP congressman is running in that portion of the state where Republicans do well. He is facing off in a redistricted 4th District against Christie Vilsack, the wife of the former governor and current agriculture secretary.* King is scrappy and a fierce critic of President Obama. Voters motivated to come out for him will add to Romney’s numbers.

What about middle-of-the-road voter? Like every battleground state, the undecided voters care most about the economy. In several battleground states, like Virginia and Ohio, the unemployment rate is below the national average. That means the fight to spin the economic message is a three way face-off between Obama, Romney, and the Republican governor. The unemployment rate in Iowa is 5.2 percent and dropping (the national average is 8.2 percent). The question then, in Iowa, is where the disconnect begins and ends between the way people think about their personal economic well-being and what they think about the national picture. They may see signs of an economic recovery but not credit the president, as appears to be the case in Ohio. Or they could feel things are getting better in their own lives and still have big concerns about the larger economy.

Iowa Republicans think they know how to appeal to voters' concerns about the larger economy. "Iowans are really scared about debt," says Branstad. Iowans have the lowest credit card debt of any state in the nation. The state is 38th in bankruptcies. Polling suggests Romney has an advantage on this topic. In the NBC/Marist poll, Romney beats Obama by 18 points when people are asked which candidate can better handle the debt (52 percent to 34 percent).* That's a much bigger margin than in any other battleground state. That's why Romney's advisers framed his recent speech in the state around the "prairie fire of debt."

The advantage the Democrats have in Iowa is the same one they have in so many other states: their turnout machine. Already Democrats have opened more than 40 offices. Volunteers have been working voters for several years, developing the kinds of personal relationships that Republicans can’t build overnight, even with loads of money. "The physics of the thing is that you can't make up for time," says Dvorsky. 

The Obama campaign may have the best organization, but that may only get them so far in an election where the national condition is hard to overcome. The president’s forces may have an amazing set of sharpened knives for this battle, but Romney has a 2-ton anvil he can drop from the heavens in the form of a bad economy. That’s what may help the Romney campaign overcome its ground-game deficit and make it easier to persuade voters. Obama volunteers have to explain away disappointments and put things into context. That takes time and patience. Romney volunteers have an easier case. As President Obama himself has joked, the Republican message can fit in a Tweet: 'Things aren't as good as they should be and it's Obama's fault." Branstad offers his own short corollary: "Romney is a guy who knows how to fix things." 

The former Blockbuster video store now occupied by the Obama campaign was the Romney headquarters during the caucus. When the Romney team left, the Obama gang moved in. In a swing state like Iowa, even the rental properties are up for grabs.

Corrections, June 17, 2012: This article originally stated Obama had 32 percent support in a NBC/Marist poll. He has 34 percent, an 18 point deficit to Romney. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also misspelled the last name of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 16, 2012: This article originally misidentified Christie Vilsack as Nancy Vilsack. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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