On Monday, January 19, Democrats from all over the state of Iowa will convrge in each of its 2,131 different precincts to debate and show support for their respective candidates, giving to ordinary citizens the first opportunity to pick their President.
The caucus in Iowa has just recently become two separate races: one between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean for first place among Democrats, and the other between Senators John Kerry and John Edwards for third.
A candidate's success in the Iowa caucus has often depended largely on the effectiveness of his campaign organization to help supporters get to the caucus. The contest next week will be no different.
Dick Gephardt, a veteran Congressional leader and winner of the Iowa Democratic vote in 1988, was favored to win easily before Governor Dean's insurgent campaign in the past three months. Now Gephardt's highly organized get-out-the-vote campaign structure, largely run by local unions, (a strategy that delivered the Iowa caucus for him in '88) has been trumped by Dean's incredibly fervent and effective grassroots campaign. Not only does Dean have the most active supporters in the state, 3,500 other Dean campaign workers from out of state will arrive in Iowa this week.
On the issues, the Dean-Gephardt battle has varied by the day. Just over a month ago, Dean's anti-war position consistently energized and attracted support (Iowa has been a dovish state since Vietnam despite its dependence on international exports of pork and corn).
But with the capture of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has received less attention from the candidates and the press, and as a result, the Dean campaign has shifted its focus to the economya subject in which Gephardt has more credibility. Gephardt is a Midwestern protectionist who has demonstrated his support for farmers' interests for decades as a Congressmanand agricultural issues cannot be underestimated in Iowa's political landscape.
This potentially damaging shift in focus for Governor Dean has been counteracted by the three key endorsements he recently receivedevents whose effects in isolation could be minimized by other candidates, but in succession cannot be ignored. The first was by Al Gore, the former vice-president who has already beaten the sitting president, which asserted that Dean did have support from the Democratic establishment.
The second was by Bill Bradley, a lesser national figure, who was the Senator who challenged Gore in the 2000 primary and, in effect, these two endorsements by leading Democrats who have a history of disagreement implies that Dean might not be divisive after all.
Those endorsements help Dean immensely, particularly by transforming him from the dark-horse candidate to the unequivocal front-runner. Nevertheless, Gore and Bradley's endorsements are not as important in Iowa as they are on the national stage.
The final endorsement will likely have the most impact on the caucus. Senator Tom Harkin endorsed Governor Dean this past Friday. Harkin's nomination is momentous for two reasons: one, he is the leading Democrat in Iowa, and two, he was the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Thus, Harkin will not only be likely to sway undecided Iowans (an attempt he made in his endorsement speech), including farmers, who are among his most adamant supporters.
Despite these three blows, Gephardt still can edge out a victory with his effective get-out-the-vote campaign. On the night of January 19, whomever the victor is, that candidate's workers will have played a vital role in his victory.
In the past two weeks, an equally contested race has developed between John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Both candidates have mounted desperate but spirited campaigns for third place hoping that success in Iowa will propel them to victory in the next primaries, in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Their strategy is well founded because Kerry needs to win New Hampshire over Dean to carry him into the later primaries, and Edwards must win South Carolina if he hopes to continue to run in the southern primaries that follow the one next to his home state.
Kerry benefits from a well financed and disciplined campaign in the state, whereas Edwards has been rewarded by residents in recent polls for refusing to engage in the mudslinging at Dean (a practice that Kerry began).
Interestingly enough, this secondary race will have an enormous impact on the primary race between Gephardt and Dean, for both candidates draw support away from the two leaders. Kerry's campaign in the past weeks has consisted largely of reactions to Dean's campaign and comments that Dean lacks the experience and integrity necessary to beat Bush.
Although Kerry and Dean do not have similar support bases, the more people Kerry convinces that Dean is not of presidential ilk, the less likely people are to vote for Dean. The effectiveness of his negative campaigning remains to be seen.
Edwards's effect on Gephardt's campaign is even more pronounced. Both candidates draw from the same demographicfarmers and the so-called "Reagan Democrats" (white, blue-collar males). The Edwards campaign in Iowa got an unprecedented boost when The Des Moines Register endorsed him in its Sunday publication. Finally, the Dean campaign recognizes the opportunity that Edwards presents to disable Gephardt, and Senator Harkin, in his stumping for Dean, made a point to mention Edwards as a great candidate.
All of these confounding factors are impossible to separate and measure, reemphasizing how inexact the science political science is in this country. Nonetheless, if there are no certainties in the outcome, there are certainly consequences of the possible results.
Gephardt must win Iowa if he wants a shot at the nomination. If Dean beats him, the congressman is finished, and the candidate from Vermont might get the momentum necessary to win New Hampshire and eventually the nomination. If Dean does not win, he will still have enough money to run an endurance race through the later primaries, but that possible outcome makes it even more necessary that he beats Kerry in New Hampshire.
If Kerry beats Edwards out for third, Kerry might receive enough press to help him beat Dean eight days later in New Hampshire. If Edwards wins third, Gephardt will almost certainly lose in Iowa and the young senator from the south will receive unprecedented attention as the new anti-Dean.
At least one thing is for sure. The Iowa caucus on Tuesday will be a dramatic beginning for what is shaping up to be one of the most passionate and polarizing elections in American history.