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Mustering Sheep: The Iowa Caucuses and the Making of American-ness

Photos by Jon Winet

Rick Perry crowd

The Deciders: A crowd gathers for a Rick Perry appearance shortly after his candidacy was announced.

For Iowans, December is a time of making personal connections on the ground, judging presidential candidates by their handshakes and eye contact, and watching debates in order to draw distinctions that will help them to cast their caucus votes. The 2012 Iowa Caucus rings in Iowa’s 40th year of hosting the inaugural event of the Republican and Democratic nomination process. Iowa’s role as the first caucus seems to be a symbolic articulation of how we transform the diverse amalgam of 309 million people into the space we call America. Although the Democrats are using this year’s caucus as a centralized way to organize voters early, the small but enthusiastic number of Democrats who participate in the caucus are considerably invested in a process in which Iowa leads and the rest of the nation follows.

Rick Perry signing an autograph

It seems like eons ago, but it was only a bit over four months ago that Rick Perry made the candidate's obligatory stop at Iowa City's legendary Hamburg Inn no. 2 on his first day of campaigning for the GOP Presidential nomination, just two days after throwing his (cowboy) hat in the ring. An overflow crowd gathered outside the 'Burg,' including well organized Ron Paul supporters to engage in a healthy debate on the merits of the candidates and the issues.

At a caucus house party held in a festively decorated University Heights home, Sue Bruell, dressed unassumingly in a turtleneck and jogging pants, collected coats with a grave modesty. For Sue, participating in this year’s Iowa Caucus marked a rite of passage that initiated her into the inner sanctum of the American Experience. Bruell, who was born a stateless citizen, was “excited to be part of participatory democracy.”

Bruell explained, “People like to follow the leader.” For her, Iowa’s controversial first-in-the-nation status was all about “mustering sheep.”

But more than that, Bruell believes that “it would hurt America if Iowa weren’t first.” To support this assertion, Bruell invokes the “T” word—Tradition. And in almost hallowed tones, she brings up the Midwestern sensibility—solid, nice, trustworthy, sensible, open-minded.

Crowd at a Newt Gingrich speaking event

Some came to listen, others came to "mic-check" Newt Gingrich at a December visit.

The quintessentially American Midwest essence comes up again weeks later at Newt Gingrich’s speech about the promise of brain science research to save our economy. Libertarian-leaning University of Iowa medical student Denny Porto attended the speech. Although Porto “likes and respects Speaker Gingrich,” he expects to caucus for his very first time this year in support of Ron Paul. Porto notes that caucus season “is an especially great time to be an Iowan,” and he emphasizes the importance of maintaining the tradition of Iowa’s first in the nation status because of its many strengths. For Porto, Iowa “represents a broad differential of America in general. We have rural America. We have bigger cities. We have great academic centers, and when you look at all those different parts, you can get a broad cut of what America is.”

Porto goes on to say, “Iowa brought Barack Obama to the forefront last year. [sic] And if it wasn’t for Iowa, I wonder who our president would be right now.” Although Porto expresses a proud nostalgia for Iowa’s role in President Obama’s nomination, he does not seem to actually be an Obama supporter—Obama’s healthcare package being a point of suspicion for him. He states, “Obama care is more bad than good. When you try to add a foreign element to the doctor-patient relationship, which is a sacred relationship, it interferes with what we are trying to do, and it gets in the way of the healing process.” Porto defends insurance companies’ rules and bureaucracy, stating “insurance companies are trying to help the patients the best that they can. The problem lies when you start to have these public-private partnerships with insurance companies and when there are barriers to competition.”

Rick Perry campaign bus

The fortunes of the GOP pretenders to the throne have risen and fallen with alacrity. Perry, who entered the race as the odds on favorite to capture the nomination, revealed himself to be an ineffective campaigner and a wretched debater, effectively throwing himself under his own campaign bus. Parked right by the Hamburg Inn no. 2, Iowa City, Iowa. August 15, 2011.

Thus the common denominator for the Iowans we spoke with seems to be less about who actually comes out of the Iowa Caucus process and more about Iowa’s role as the bastion of American values—the geographic incarnation of true American-ness. However, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, Iowa is not the mean center of population in the United States. That distinction goes to Plato, Missouri—and the center continues to move in westerly, and in recent decades a southerly, direction, reflecting the settlement of the West and the recent growth of the South. This suggests that Iowa is not dealing with the kinds of growth trends that most of the U.S. is. And the demographic differences are astonishing. People of European descent, what the census categorizes as White persons, make up 91.3% of the state population and about 83% of the population of Iowa City, while they make up 72.4% of the U.S. population.

But that’s not how Iowans see it.

2011 Iowa Code 43.4 states that Iowa precinct caucuses must be held a minimum of eight days before any other state. Bill Keettel, co-chair of the Candidate Recruitment/Support Standing Committee of the Johnson County Republicans and a University Heights resident who grew up in Iowa City, feels that the nomination process produces too many similarly positioned candidates who overgraze the presidential meadow—Are there really any substantive differences between Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, besides maybe their hair? For Keettel, “Iowa’s function is to clear out the deadwood” and send a few viable candidates out for the rest of America to continue to scrutinize.

A Tale of Two Debs

Deborah Thornton

Deborah Thornton watches a Des Moines debate.

Preparing to blog about the Dec. 8, Des Moines, ABC GOP debate, Deborah Thornton sits in her eastside kitchen, which smells of spices from the apple cider she has mulled for us and other guests she has invited to meet with us. Thornton is a Research Analyst with the Public Interest Institute of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, which analyzes public policy issues that affect Iowans. She also serves as the Chair of the Johnson County Republican Issues Committee. Thornton thinks that Iowa’s small population—which seems to make Iowa a bad fit in being a representational state in the presidential nomination process—is part of the importance of it holding the first primary contest. Iowa is doable—an accessible state where voters can actually meet the candidates.

Media pundits argue that this do-ability also gives Iowans disproportionate access to candidates, who visit multiple times, which in turn brings an inordinate amount of media attention to Iowa, making the precinct caucuses less about representational democracy and eye-to-eye politicking and more about creating a media spectacle. In such a mediascape, it’s more important when a candidate peaks in Iowa, rather than who that candidate is. Texas Governor Rick Perry immediately shot to the top of the polls as the likely nominee for the Republican Party. A lot of people were interested in Perry and wanted him to get into the race. Then Gingrich experienced a surge. But two weeks before the Caucus, an Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll of 333 expected Republican caucusers put Ron Paul in the lead, with Gingrich’s polling numbers dropping like a rock. Going into the Caucuses, the GOP field is wide open.

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In fact, Thornton predicts that the 2012 Iowa Caucuses will not produce a clear, landslide winner, but instead will produce a plurality of viable candidates that will forge an American presidential nominee conversation rather than close that conversation off.

Thornton concedes that in terms of politics, the significance of the Caucus vote is “a spin and a bounce, the Big Mo—the big momentum kind of thing.”

But beyond the political, Thornton, who identifies as a Christian and a conservative, still advocates for Iowa’s symbolic significance: “The Republican State Party in Iowa believes that Iowa being first in the nation and retaining that first in the nation position is very important. And I think the Party believes it’s important because Iowa is the heartland. We’re not the Left Coast or the Right Coast. . . . We are Middle America. Heartland. We represent the best of America as a developing country. People who are hardworking, family people who are doing the best they can in their communities and their families to make a good living and to raise their children and to have a good life.”

As for the Caucus’s electoral clout, Thornton states that the Johnson County GOP will get behind whichever candidate comes out of the Iowa Caucus process because Obama’s first term has been plagued by bad foreign policy—as the leader of the Free World, she says, we are not leading—and a domestic policy that defies a more fiscally conservative approach.

Deb Derkson, chair for the Public Relations/Communications Standing Committee of the Johnson County Republicans

Conservative to the Core: Deb Derkson at a Johnson County GOP event.

Deb Derksen, chair of the Public Relations/Communications Standing Committee of the Johnson County Republicans and Johnson County resident, defines herself not so much as a Republican but rather as a religious Christian conservative with strong family values and a fervent belief that all forms of life are important from conception until death. Derksen speaks as a Herman Cain supporter whose man has already been rooted out of the process; as such, she says the other candidates will have a lot to prove to earn her support. Derksen is suspicious of Mitt Romney’s inconsistent position on abortion. Although she thinks Gingrich is knowledgeable and a good adviser, she does not think that Gingrich has enough support to beat Obama. Besides, she just doesn’t see him as the president. She doesn’t know if Bachmann has what it takes. She knows Santorum doesn’t. She suspects that Ron Paul is setting the stage for his son to run. She doesn’t appreciate that Perry pushed Gardasil, a vaccine for use in the prevention of certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), when he has a vested interest in pharmaceuticals. And besides, his eye contact sucked when he shook her hand. And because Romney hadn’t yet visited Iowa, she hadn’t met him at all.

Having met Cain several times, Derksen’s support comes from the kind of personal candidate access opportunities that define the ramp-up to the Iowa Caucuses. Commenting on her impression of Cain, Derksen states, “When he came to Iowa City, I picked him up from the airport, so his whole entourage was in my vehicle. You know, when you get to meet a candidate with a room full of people, that’s one thing. But when you meet someone, and they let their guard down a little bit more because they are not showing off for anyone or doing any political process at that time—he was just a real person at that time. So I felt like, in the couple of hours that I was able to be around him on that day, I got to know him even better. [I] did meet him also when he was up in Cedar Rapids—he had come to a chili dinner that they had up in Linn County—and was able to talk to him quite a bit at length there.”

It is this personal side of the political process, bringing a candidate into your community—even into your car—that is so important to Iowans. In this way, all those moments that allow voters to have connections with candidates are what drive the significance of the Iowa Caucus.

Derksen continues, “the whole political process of vetting someone or finding out if they are a real person or not, and how far their convictions go, I think it’s very important. And I think we’re lucky in the state of Iowa that we get to do that. That we get to meet people up-close and personal, and one-on-one, face-to-face.”

Face-to-face politicking is quite powerful, but does the very fact of being a small enough state to make that a reality mean that Iowa is not in fact a representational space for the rest of the country? Given the social and demographic differences that Iowa has in relation to the rest of the U.S., does Iowans’ constant invocation of Midwestern essence harken back to an outmoded vision of the Jeffersonian yeoman? And with the regional decreasing birth rates and the educated farmers’ kids moving away—and even the not-so educated ones, and even the ones whose parents aren’t farmers—hasn’t investing in this representation of America as rural wonderland in fact come back to bite white people in the ass? Perhaps. And perhaps Iowa isn’t “representative” of the demographic, social and economic diversity of America in any mean, median or algebraic way. But Iowa must be represented. Iowa must be part of the discussion—it cannot be lost in the shuffle because, although Iowa is not representative of the whole country, Iowa is representative of a certain sense, a certain Midwestern insistence; it is representative of a large segment of Americans who feels their voice is not being heard. The candidates that come out of the Iowa precinct caucuses are not meant to decide the race for the rest of us, but instead serve as Iowa’s meaningful participation in influencing who gets the honor of being included in the conversation.

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