Would-be presidents and their staffs pop up in the cornfields like whack-a-moles. Severe announcers and ominous music come on television every few minutes to warn that life as you know it could end if you make the wrong choice. Rascally campaign operatives steal campaign signs from front yards and highways. Iowans are used to this kind of attention from presidential candidates—but not at this time of the year.
Iowa and New Hampshire are accustomed to being courted in January, when they show up as the early belles of the primary season ball. But then they're quickly forsaken for sexier, more vote-rich states as the campaign rolls on. Not this time. Both are close, and Iowa may be the biggest toss-up in the nation.
Discerning Swingers readers will by now have noticed some patterns in many battleground states, patterns into which Iowa fits nicely:
City/Country Split. Democrats do better in Iowa's more urbanized eastern section, and the GOP tends to be strong in the rural west. But here's how pronounced the split really is: Iowa has 99 counties (a legacy of the time when everyone was supposed to be no more than a day's buggy ride from the county seat). Of those 99, Democrats can and do win statewide races by carrying just six of the most populous counties. If Kerry hopes to win, he'll have to build up enough of a reserve in places like Polk (home of Des Moines) and Scott counties to offset the Bush onslaught in the rest of the state.
Shifting Midwest. Like Minnesota and Wisconsin, Iowa has been trending more Republican in recent years. Its once-blue legislature is now solid red. The GOP holds four of the state's five House seats. And the New Deal generation that formed the backbone of the Democratic Party here is giving way to younger voters for whom social conservatism is as important as Social Security.
Independence. Despite trends that favor Republicans, Iowans are still happy to elect Democrats—and not just moderate ones. They keep returning liberal four-term Sen. Tom Harkin to Washington (although in pretty close races). Gov. Tom Vilsack is also a Democrat, and the state has spurned the GOP at the presidential level since 1988.
Registration. Voter drives have boosted registration to around 95 percent of all eligible Iowans, and at last count the Democrats had registered 42,000 more new voters than the GOP.
Still, Iowa presents its own challenges and opportunities to the candidates. On the Bush side, although the manufacturing economy has been hurt in recent years, its agriculture sector is doing pretty well. On the Democrats' side, both John Kerry and John Edwards spent a lot of time here during the run-up to the caucuses. In fact, in the words of Colin Van Ostern, Kerry's communications director in the state, "Iowa chose this ticket." (That is, Kerry and Edwards finished first and second in the caucuses, which sparked their rise—and Howard Dean's precipitous fall—in the following primaries.)
Perhaps the most unusual electoral feature of Iowa is how absurdly easy it is to cast a ballot here. Want to vote absentee? No problem. Can't wait for Election Day? Early satellite voting stations have been open since Sept. 23. Can't be bothered to drop your postage-paid absentee ballot in the mailbox? They've got that covered, too. The parties will send state-licensed "couriers" to your living room to pick up the ballot and take it to the county auditor's office for you.
With all these options, Iowans vote early in large numbers. This year, as many as 35 percent may cast their ballots before Nov. 2. And that can make a huge difference. In 2000, George Bush won the votes actually cast on Election Day. But when the early ballots were added in, Al Gore narrowly took the state. (He won by a little over 4,000 votes, but both campaigns this year motivate their troops by putting it another way: Gore prevailed by just two votes per precinct.)