Can Kerry hold Iowa?

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 25 2004 7:42 AM

Iowa

Kerry won the Democratic nomination in Iowa. Will he win the presidency here, too?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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.

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

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.

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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.)

Voting may be a little too easy in Iowa. It takes just a few hundred signatures to force your county to open an early voting station (for what's oxymoronically called "absentee voting in person") at your preferred location. These have included churches on Sundays and now union halls, meaning these groups can preach "non-partisanly" to the converted and then show them to the polling booths.

But it's the courier system that seems most amazing, and potentially alarming, to a jaded outsider. I tagged along with Ann Sokolowski, a volunteer courier for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Des Moines, as she drove around collecting absentee ballots from fellow Democrats. We were welcomed into the kitchen of Ed and Rosa Walker, an older couple who can't make it to the polls because of health problems. They happily chattered about why they were voting for Kerry, and then handed over their absentee ballots to Sokolowski. She carefully avoided giving them any voting advice, which would be against the law. Then she plopped the ballots in a plastic shopping bag and we moved on.

And I thought: I sure am glad they don't have this system in Chicago or Miami.

I have no doubt that Sokolowski acts with equal probity when a reporter isn't standing next to her. But could less scrupulous couriers of either party pressure voters or "disappear" ballots on the way to the county office? It honestly wouldn't be that hard.

"On the plus side," said Bush-Cheney state chairman Dave Roederer, "[this system] gives more people the opportunity to vote. On the negative side, it does increase the likeliness of mischief." The Republicans also have couriers, but Roederer told me his side will only send them out if called. He alleged that some voters have complained of undue persuasion from couriers.

The Democrats appear more enthusiastic about the benefits of early voting. They urge their voters to get absentee ballots, and then call them to offer couriers for pick-up. As Van Ostern put it, "We're out getting thousands of votes, and putting them in the bank for Election Day."

So while the opinion polls teeter back and forth and the candidates continue to lavish attention on the Hawkeye State, it's possible this race has already been decided in Iowa. But we won't know until we see what both sides have put in the "bank."