DES MOINES, Iowa -- In every presidential election season, Iowa is a political stage set. With its sprawling farms, literate voters, unforgettable fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, wild-eyed liberals and devout religious conservatives, the state and its caucuses provide a picturesque setting for candidates scrambling for a moment of attention and hoping to be transformed by prairie dust from improbable to inevitable.
Then everyone zips out of here as fast as possible and promptly forgets about the state for another four years.
Not this time. Iowa has emerged as one of about 10 swing states in the general election, and this time the nominees are returning -- not once, but often -- for an encore turn on the Iowa stage.
This fall, the farmers working late at harvest time aren't the only Iowans whose lights are illuminating the wide night skies here. The campaign workers are working late, too.
Seldom has so much political activity been invested by so many political activists for what would seem to be so little political payoff. But suddenly Iowa's six little electoral votes are the electoral version of blue ribbons at the state fair. They're big prizes.
The election is that close -- and was long before the first presidential debate catapulted former Gov. Mitt Romney into a virtual tie with President Barack Obama.
"The debates affect donors and mobilize activists here," says Barbara Trish, a political scientist at Grinnell College, some 60 miles east of Des Moines. "But I bet on Election Day the state will still be uncertain. We won't know who won Iowa until late that night."
Which is why this month Mr. Romney visited teeny Van Meter (population 1,073), best known as the home of fireballing pitcher Bob Feller, and Mr. Obama paused in Mount Vernon (population 4,506), where ordinarily the biggest thing in town in October is the chili cook-off.
Iowa isn't used to causing late-night jitters for presidential campaigns. Early 20th-century Sen. Jonathan Dolliver once proclaimed with confidence that "Iowa will go Democratic when Hell goes Methodist." In fact, until recently, Republicans ruled with little challenge in presidential elections, even after Elmer Carlson shoved a mule into the elevator of Chicago's Palmer Hotel at the 1952 Democratic National Convention. Dwight Eisenhower took 64 percent of the Iowa vote that year.
Now, Iowa is a classic swing state, befitting a territory that was one of the first in the nation to practice crop rotation.
Iowa sends one senator of each party to Washington. The House delegation consists of three Democrats and two Republicans. One chamber of the state legislature is controlled by Democrats, the other by Republicans -- and the state Senate has 25 Democrats and 24 Republicans.
Retired Iowa state historian Dorothy Schwieder titled her 1996 book "Iowa: The Middle Land" and sketched Iowa as conservative in politics but liberal in social outlook -- and always choosing a middle ground.
"Iowa, unlike Midwestern states to the east, has not become predominantly industrial, and unlike Midwestern states to the west, has not remained mostly agricultural," she wrote. "Rather, in politics, in economics, in social values and social actions, Iowa can still be defined as the middle land."
The middle ground is a recurrent theme in this state, whose 55,869 square miles of land provide fully a quarter of the top-grade agricultural land in the country.
Indeed, the 1938 WPA Guide to Iowa, noting "the rich land, remarkably uniform diffusion of the population, traditions of culture and tolerance," spoke of a "successful experiment in living" that has been achieved "in this fertile middle ground between the congested districts of the East and the more sparsely settled West."
Social movements have moved across Iowa like the glaciers that shaped it -- recurrent farm revolts, the Social Gospel, Prohibition, modern liberalism, and then a surging religious conservatism that has surpassed mainline Protestantism in its political if not its social influence.
The result is the unpredictability in Iowa politics that we are seeing this autumn.
In 1962, Harold Hughes, with a history of alcoholism, was elected governor on a platform of liquor by the drink. He was only the second Democratic governor in a quarter-century. In three terms he brought what James Larew in his history of the Iowa Democratic Party described as "'Great Society' attitudes toward taxes and social services." Later, Republican Terry Branstad served four consecutive terms as governor and then returned to office last year for a fifth after a dozen years of Democratic rule.
Though many pioneers settled here, Iowa was marked by great waves of migration, first by Native Americans who roamed south and west from the Great Lakes, and then by whites -- Irish, Scots, Swedes, Germans and Dutch, even Danes -- who traveled east across prairie grass that often was higher than the wheels of the wagons carrying their provisions.
Immigration peaked in the 1890s, but a 21st-century wave is breaking over Iowa, drawn to the state by its reputation for civility, its celebration of education and its small industries, with the new Iowans more likely to settle in small cities than in rural crossroads. There are, to be sure, migrant workers here, though Iowa today is shaped more by permanent settlers employed in meat-packing. Iowa no longer is a state only of "corn, cattle and contentment," the sardonic description Ray Stannard Baker applied in a late 19th-century article in Harper's Weekly.
The state boasts a unique political character, where voters meet candidates easily and casually but study their positions slowly and seriously. Its political culture is grounded in the land -- steak frys and hog-judging contests, debates about prize roosters, pictures in front of the annual butter cow -- and in the personal ties that flourish in a small state with a rural culture.
This year the campaign has gone digital, with both campaigns mounting social media efforts. The other day Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin sent a mass email urging Obama supporters to back the president in early voting, which began Sept. 27. Some went to people who had already voted.
Four years from now those sorts of snafus won't happen. But four years from now a genuine general election campaign might not happen here either. Iowans are making hay now (and baling wheat straw) -- tons of it, and some of it is political.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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