URBANDALE, Iowa—Elizabeth Smith, a 28-year-old substitute teacher and volunteer canvasser for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, fearlessly bounded past a white “Trick or Treat” ghost haunting the entrance to a Mission-style house in a comfortable neighborhood of $200,000 homes just west of Des Moines. The specter that should have frightened her was the cheerful middle-aged man named Mike standing on the porch wearing a white T-shirt, jeans and a Pioneer Seed cap.
Smith’s primary mission on a drizzly Saturday afternoon was to persuade proven Obama supporters to take advantage of Iowa’s permissive early voting rules. Mike (who did not want his last name used) had been there at the beginning for Obama. He is a life-long Republican who crossed over to help fuel the breakthrough victory of the jug-eared senator from Chicago in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
But now Mike, a family-practice physician, is an undecided voter. There was not a specific point when the balloon of hope popped, but rather just a slow leak.
“I’ve seen some changes since Obama was elected,” he told me, “but not enough.” But Romney also leaves Mike dubious: “I think that he’s going to be great for big business. I’m just not sure that’s what I’m about.” So Mike, who has only sporadically watched the debates, remains a portrait in indecision as the electoral clock keeps ticking.
Two miles away on Saturday afternoon, at the Romney state headquarters in a strip mall in Urbandale, Darla Phillips was reminded that phone canvassing can be as frustrating as the door-to-door variety. While her script is designed to encourage early voting by the Republican faithful, Phillips patiently endured a lengthy losing streak of answering machines and endlessly ringing phones.
Finally, hearing a live voice, she began her pitch: “David, my name is Darla and I’m a volunteer at the Republican Victory Office in Urbandale. We’re calling some of our most committed Republicans...”
She stopped abruptly and said with a tinge of sadness in her voice, “He hung up.”
Nowhere in the nation are voters more bombarded by political messages—and more practiced in blocking them out. As the site of the opening-gun Iowa caucuses, on-the-ground campaigning kicked off here as soon as the 2010 elections were over. The ad wars began here 16 months ago when Tim Pawlenty (remember him?) aired the first TV commercial of the presidential cycle. And because Iowa is a swing state, the general election provides no respite. Last week, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids were among the 10 most politically saturated media markets in the nation.
“It’s been 24 months of ridiculous attention for a small state with just six electoral votes,” says John Stineman, an Iowa Republican consultant. To punctuate the point, Iowa will be Obama's first stop after tonight's debate. The president, who will be making his ninth trip to Iowa this year, will speak Wednesday morning at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, which is in the Cedar Rapids media market.
With the truncated map of swing states this year, Iowa is at the heartland of both candidates’ victory strategies. If Obama wins just the states that John Kerry carried in 2004, plus Iowa and Ohio, he will be reelected. Nate Silver, the prognosticator in chief at the New York Times, recently claimed that in his simulations, “Romney won the election only 2 percent of the time that he lost Iowa.”
In Iowa, presidential politics are played out on a canvas larger than a 54-inch flat-screen TV. Iowa is the global epicenter of political organizing. The caucuses have schooled generations of campaign tacticians in door-to-door voter targeting and in maximizing turnout. As Stineman jokes, “Iowa’s chief export is political operatives.”
Obama has been running a pretty-much permanent campaign in Iowa since 2007. But after being demonized by Republicans during the year leading up to the caucuses, Obama hit low ebb in a February 2012 Iowa Poll in the Des Moines Register: He lost the state in an extremely hypothetical match-up to (gulp) Ron Paul.
“The Obama campaign realized that this was a trouble spot early,” says Democratic Iowa strategist Jeff Link. “And they built up early.”
These days, the Obama campaign boasts 67 Iowa field offices and an estimated 250 paid staffers. (The precise number is for some reason a closely guarded secret). The Romney campaign—which mocks its rival’s enthusiasm for opening storefront local headquarters—has 13 Iowa offices and about one third as many paid staffers as the Obama operation.
What the Democrats traditionally excel at in Iowa is taking advantage of the state’s permissive early voting rules. The most idiosyncratic wrinkle in Iowa law is the provision that establishes an early pop-up voting site anywhere requested by 100 eligible voters.
“I’m sorry to admit that the Democrats do a better job at absentee voting,” says Marlys Popma, the former executive director of the state Republican Party. In 2008, John McCain narrowly defeated Obama by 1,600 votes in Iowa on Election Day. But it did not matter, because the Obama campaign had banked so many early ballots (by a 148,000-vote margin) that the Illinois senator romped home with a 10-percentage-point victory.
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Quantifying the extent of the Democrats’ organizational advantage is impossible. If Iowa is as close as it was in 2000 (Al Gore won by 4,000 votes) and 2004 (George W. Bush had a 10,000-vote edge), then it may turn out to be decisive. But there are skeptics.
“I think the get-out-the-vote issue is overblown,” says Sam Clovis, a Sioux City talk radio host and social conservative activist. “The Democrats have always out-organized the Republicans, but that assumes that the enthusiasm levels are the same for both sides. And that isn’t the case.”
The last Iowa Poll, the only statewide survey with a proven track record, came out in late September before the first presidential debate. Its findings, showing Obama with a narrow 49-to-45 percent lead, may no longer be relevant. There have been only two post-presidential-debate polls in Iowa. Rasmussen Reports gave Obama a razor-thin 49-to-47 edge and a new American Research Group survey, mostly conducted after the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan face-off, shows the statewide race tied at 48 percent. Democrats theorize that the president may have lost less ground in the state than elsewhere after his fuzzy and flat-lining first debate because Iowa voters already knew Obama and Romney so well.
Iowans are experiencing a campaign year unfathomable to anyone who does not reside in a battleground state. Bulletin: The sentiments of voters in safely red and blue states no longer matter. (OK, they matter in the great pageant of democracy, but not to anyone trying to handicap the Obama-Romney race). The problem, even in this polling-propelled presidential cycle, is that there are few reliable surveys in smaller tossup states like Iowa. But you cannot divine what is happening in Waterloo or Urbandale or Sioux City based on national trends.
Teresa Hindley, a substitute teacher and a passionate Democrat whom I met canvassing in Urbandale Saturday, vividly explained the Iowa Difference. “My kids live in Chicago and the Twin Cities,” she told me. “When they were visiting, my daughter-in-law watched a little television, saw the ads, and reacted with horror, ‘Oh, my God, how can you endure that?’”