Politics & Government

Despite challenges from other states, Iowa retains political importance

Ron and Carlita Beltz may not be typical Iowans -- perhaps no one is -- but they fit into two demographics that are more pronounced in the state because they are white and over 65. They also take their politics seriously, giving up much of a Wednesday afternoon to hear Hillary Clinton speak.
Ron and Carlita Beltz may not be typical Iowans -- perhaps no one is -- but they fit into two demographics that are more pronounced in the state because they are white and over 65. They also take their politics seriously, giving up much of a Wednesday afternoon to hear Hillary Clinton speak. Scott Canon / MCT

ANKENY, Iowa — Carlita and Ron Beltz are kingmakers.

Not on their own, certainly. But their vote counts more than yours does. How many presidential candidates come to your neighborhood? They've seen several. How many campaigns call you? They've fielded dozens of requests for support this year.

You don't live in Iowa. The Beltzes do.

"You feel," Ron Beltz said, "like your vote matters."

Other states — bigger, more diverse, more like the rest of America — wonder why the Beltzes and their neighbors should have such an outsized role in choosing a president.

The overwhelming majority of Iowans, like the Beltzes, are white. At ages 68 and 70, the Beltzes fit neatly into Iowa's fifth-place ranking among states with populations past retirement age. Far more than the rest of the country, their state is invested in corn, in insurance and in holding tightly to its first-in-the-nation Jan. 3 presidential caucuses.

Few outside Iowa argue that a small Grain Belt state should always get first crack at bouncing contenders from the presidential race, or that Iowans have responded with any deeper insight than Californians or Dakotans might, given the same opportunity.

"I still can't reconcile how a couple of states can choose the next president of the United States," said Bob Dole, the former Kansas senator. He twice won Iowa as a presidential candidate, but never New Hampshire, the second state with a crack at winnowing the field. "I don't think you have to win Iowa or New Hampshire to be the nominee."

The rush to Iowa is really just an accident of history. Moved to the front of the pack in 1972 in response to a national change in delegate-selection rules for party conventions, Iowa's Democratic caucus gave George McGovern a mild boost to the nomination.

Four years later, it transformed a certain Georgia governor and peanut farmer from "Jimmy Who?" into President Carter. Ever since, candidates have found Des Moines and the state's far-flung hamlets — and enthusiasm for ethanol subsidies — irresistible. It's the state that launched John Kerry to the 2004 nomination and pitched Howard Dean into his campaign free-fall, and the one that marked the beginning of the end for Bill Bradley and Steve Forbes in 2000.

That said, Iowa's infallibility as a picker of presidents is surely documented at the Richard Gephardt Presidential Library. Whoops, he won here and still lost the nomination.

"Iowa is always important because it's really the first time that real, honest-to-goodness Americans are going to the polls, and it's not the pollsters," said former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who finished third in the 1988 Democratic caucuses before overtaking Gephardt on the way to the nomination. "On the other hand, the results of (Iowa and New Hampshire) are not going to determine this election. I mean, Feb. 5" — the Super Tuesday when California, New York, Illinois and more than a dozen other states vote — "is going to be big."

This year's warp-speed campaign schedule has renewed criticism of Iowa's me-first maneuvers and stepped up calls for a series of rotating regional primaries or other proposals that might share the wealth of early influence with other states.

Still, it hasn't erased the political rule of thumb that only three candidates from a party's caucuses survive beyond Iowa. Democrat Joseph Biden, for instance, has said that finishing fourth or worse would doom his hopes.

"It's at least as important, maybe more important" than past years, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "The candidates have got very little time between the primaries and caucuses to enable the early losers to recover and the early winners to stumble. It'll all be over in the blink of an eye."

Polls in Iowa contrast with national surveys. Among Democrats nationally, Hillary Clinton tends to run almost 2-to-1 over Barack Obama, but in Iowa, Clinton, Obama and John Edwards are clumped together in a too-close-to-call scrum, with many voters still undecided.

Among Republicans nationally, Rudy Giuliani draws about double the support of Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson. But with the Iowa GOP, Romney and Mike Huckabee stand well ahead of Giuliani.

The differences may be demographic, the idiosyncrasies of a disproportionately rural inland state. Just as plausibly, Iowa could be a more intense measure of how voters respond when the campaigning gets serious.

"In Iowa, you become a better candidate," said Woody Overton, who has run statewide presidential campaigns in Missouri and worked for Gephardt in Iowa in 1988 and 2000. "You really get to know people, to talk about real issues in living rooms. Advertising is important, but much of the contact is one-to-one in coffee shops. It's not a myth."

Barely more than one in 10 registered voters in the state usually shows up, making the value of engaged voters such as the Beltzes all the more coveted.

Indeed, the Beltzes were deeply tuned in by Thanksgiving. Now retired, the two split their time between central Iowa and South Carolina. This year they're wintering in the Midwest — for the politics, although South Carolina also has an outsize role in this year's primaries.

"We get maybe five to 10 calls a week from the campaigns," Carlita Beltz said, while surrendering hours of her Wednesday afternoon to listen to Clinton pitch her plan for a health-care overhaul.

"It is a complete accident that Iowa was first. It's not the system anyone would sketch out if they were going to set one up," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "If anyone had to be first, I think Iowans have handled it pretty well. ... Iowans have assumed that responsibility."

(Canon, Kraske and Helling write for The Kansas City Star.)

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