Gov. Rick Perry printed his autograph in legible, block letters and it took Dana Denklau by surprise. He expected a scrawl on the piece of paper he gave to the Texas governor during a campaign visit at the Iowa 80 Truckstop on Aug. 15 in Walcott, Iowa.
So as Denklau struggles with Mitt Romney's health care history, he remembers how Perry connected with the Walcott audience clearly, concisely and genuinely, right up to an autograph that can actually be read. Denklau read the Quad-City Times' caucus coverage, watched some debates and felt a growing affinity for the Texas governor. Come Jan. 3, Denklau intends to head to the elementary school across the street from his Walcott home to caucus for Perry.
Ginger Arp left that same campaign event with a different impression. "I just didn't have a good feeling about him, seeing how he worked the people." The smile and handshake seemed a bit too quick, which struck her as insincere. After considering Texas' health care and education record, Arp is confident she won't pick him.
The Iowa caucus campaigns are a mish-mash of impressions, agendas and personalities that defy categorization and order. Consequently, every assessment we've read of the caucuses is true for someone. Yes, the caucuses over-emphasize parochial concerns of a relative handful of voters in a homogenous state. Yes, the caucuses level the playing field between well-funded national campaigns and earnest, regional contenders. Yes, the caucuses overamplify the local-yokel opinion. Yes, the caucuses channel the purest form of citizen participation to the highest office in the land.
The results are messy. Consider how almost every candidate in the GOP field ascended to the top of the polls briefly. Polls add to the campaign drama, but fail to capture the uniquely Iowa dimension: Caucusing is ritual, not just a quick expression of preference. Participants vote in community. Democrats state candidate preferences publicly. Republicans assemble at a specified time to cast their private ballots. This public ritual seems to satisfy more richly than a trip to a voting booth.
Caucus participants are motivated by factors far different from those that influence poll responses or traditional polling place votes. One example: Poll takers and pundits punished Perry's debate performances. But the roomful of caucus-goers at the Scott County Republicans Reagan dinner got a chance to laugh with Perry about those debate gaffes, not dismissing them, just putting them into a human context.
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That's the context missing from the national campaign. That's the context, we believe, that keeps the Iowa caucuses vital to our nation's presidential campaign. Certainly, voters in many other states could fill this role. But Iowans created that role and continue to define it.
They had their work cut out for them this year. GOP candidates chose different tactics, foregoing much of the coffee-klatsch stops for traditional campaign sweeps. Even libertarian Rep. Ron Paul opted for rallys over forums, making 20-minute speeches to crowds of ardent supporters, instead of 30-minute conversations with critical listeners around an Iowa dinner table.
Frankly, we believe the dinner-table variety of campaigning is where the candidates and Iowans perform best. That's where talk of billion-dollar tax cuts and trillion-dollar deficits reach voters who still flinch at those numbers.
The caucuses remain a gift to civic-minded Iowans, providing opportunities available to comparatively few others in this nation. Let vigorous caucus participation be Iowans' gift to the nation. Let the Jan. 3 winner be the one with the experience, vision and campaign elevated, informed and humanized by the Iowa caucus experience.
-- Quad-City Times