So folks are trying to figure out what will happen on Monday, and I think one of the factors at work is the tendency Iowans have shown over the years to pick the “fresh-faced” alternative. That, in my opinion, explains Jimmy Carter’s surprising finish ahead of nationally-prominent competitors in 1976, George Bush’s victory on the Republican side in 1980, Gary Hart’s surprising second place finish in 1984, Dick Gephardt’s 1988 win (he was 16 years younger then, remember), and Lamar Alexander’s surge to third in 1996.
I saw this on the local level growing up in small town Iowa as the town’s “elders” (my dad among them) sought out younger folks in the that a little-known and very young Jim Nussle beat a well-known and established businessman in a Republican primary in northeastern Iowa. And more recently on the democrat side, I recall little-known small town lawyer Tom Vilsack’s 1998 primary victory over a guy who had been a Supreme Court justice.
Another factor at work here in Iowa is the ground game, and the people running each of these campaigns. John Norris, the Iowa Campaign manager for John Kerry this go round, was Jesse Jackson’s Iowa campaign manager in 1988, and Jackson garnered 8.8 percent of the delegates that Caucus Night in a state which has just a fraction of minority voters. A couple of weeks ago, I went early to a Kerry event in Boone to talk with voters in the room. It was filled to capacity, and all but two of the people I talked with were undecided. Later, in a chat with Norris, he said Boone was one of the counties in Iowa with a high number of undecided voters. It’s about that time Kerry’s message changed at stop after stop, as Kerry told folks in every room he worked that he knew many of them were undecided and he would stay and answer every question in hopes of winning ’em over.
Also, as I sit here at the computer on the eve of the Iowa Caucuses, my mind goes back to 2002 and the first time I interviewed Howard Dean. Dean was in Des Moines, at a hospital, to headline a fundraiser for congressional candidate John Norris. On that cold winter day in ’02, Dean sat down in a hospital conference room with me and AP reporter Mike Glover. After a few questions from Glover about campaign tactics, I asked Dean “why do you want to be president?”. Dean turned to look at me, and that was my first, brief glimpse of the anger that has, in part, fueled his campaign. “Because I think I can do a better job than the current guy,” he said.
Iowans of both political stripes also have a long history of being undecided right up to the end in a Caucus campaign. Many of the Republicans who went to the Caucuses in 1996 made up their minds at the last moment, according to exit polls. And Dick Gephardt’s “victory” in the 1988 Caucuses illustrates that when there’s a smorgasbord of candidates, Iowans rarely unify behind a single candidate. Gephardt got 31.3 percent of the delegates on Caucus Night ’88; Paul Simon 26.7 percent; Michael Dukakis 22.2 percent; Jesse Jackson 8.8 percent; Bruce Babbitt 6.1 percent; “uncommitted” 4.5 percent; Gary Hart 0.3 percent and Albert Gore 0 percent.
So 2004’s shaping up to be a lot like ’88 — a pack of candidates, bunched together. The closing days of this year’s campaign have all the elements for a mockumentary on cable TV. Two candidates (that would be the two Johns) both seem to flip an internal switch and become incandescent. One candidate (the people powered one) who’d been touting his non-traditional campaign seems to change direction midcourse and begins to run a traditional campaign, trotting out endorsement after endorsement from party poobahs. Wasn’t this the guy who’s a party outsider? Maybe it’s a head fake, so people will quit looking at the 3500 Dean volunteers who’ve flooded the state. And the other candidate in the hunt (the one who won here in ’88) seems incapable of diverting from the script he wrote — in 1988. But that may be brilliant, since 40 percent of caucus goers are likely to be retirement age, and fonder of yesterday than today.