Wither, Iowa

DES MOINES — Every four years, politicians and the media swarm this small Midwestern state and shower its voters with attention and compliments, but very few people have the courage to admit the simple truth: Iowans are largely apathetic about politics, and they don’t deserve the disproportionate influence they have in choosing the leader of the free world.

The amount of access that the average Iowan has to presidential candidates leading up to the caucuses is simply absurd. Last Friday, Mike Huckabee spoke at the Pizza Ranch on Main Street in Pella, Iowa, a quintessential small town in the southern part of the state. Huckabee described the town as “one of those places where you feel like you’ve moved back into the neighborhood where Ozzie and Harriet could live.”

While Huckabee was speaking on one side of Main Street, Fred Thompson appeared at the Smokey Row Coffee House a few blocks away. The next morning, Mitt Romney visited the same coffee shop, and boasted that it wasn’t his first visit to the lovely Dutch-settled town with a population of 10,245.

At campaign stops, candidates from both parties say that Iowans are doing a great service for democracy by vetting them for the rest of the country.

“Boy, the folks of Iowa, you love politics don’t you?” Romney said in Pella. “You guys are just amazing. You really do the nation a service by getting to know each of us, and learning about what we believe, learning about our heart, and our character, and deciding who ought to lead our nation.”

At a rally in Des Moines on Sunday night, Barack Obama told the crowd admiringly, “You’ve lifted the hood, you’ve kicked the tires, you’ve taken all of the candidates out for a test run.”

The media often echo this romanticized notion of Iowans as savvy consumers who carefully evaluate candidates.

THE REALITY IS QUITE different. Even though candidates in both parties will have together spent hundreds of days in the state and doled out more than $30 million to air more than 50,000 television advertisements, only one out of ten eligible Iowans is expected to participate in a caucus on Thursday.

Even some of those who attend political events are not very knowledgeable about the candidates or major issues. I spoke to one man who told me that he thought Rudy Giuliani was “okay as governor” and another who told me that he was undecided between Huckabee and Romney, but he couldn’t say what the attributes or drawbacks were of either of them even though he had seen both candidates speak within the prior 24-hour period. He also said he didn’t know what issues were important to him.

To be sure, there are Iowans who are closely following the election, but they are small in number relative to the voting age population, especially considering the amount of attention that is heaped upon the state. The well-informed voters appear in news accounts because reporters need tight, coherent quotes for their stories. “I don’t knows” and blank stares do not make for good copy or television.

But the effect of filtering out uninformed voters is that it doesn’t provide Americans with a truly accurate picture of the political process in Iowa.

One of the obstacles to Iowans’ learning more about the issues is that much of the focus is on who spent how much time in the state. One Huckabee supporter told me he couldn’t support Fred Thompson because he hasn’t spent enough time in Iowa. The fact that Thompson has been virtually camping out in the state for the past few weeks was too little, too late, evidently.

The Des Moines station KCCI opened its newscast on Saturday night following the New England Patriots game with a series of reports on candidates touring the state. The brief segment on Giuliani’s visit didn’t report on what he spoke about. Rather, it was an opportunity for the newscaster to remind viewers several times that Giuliani was leaving the state and would not return.

When candidates do show up, they are often greeted with shrugs by jaded Iowans. On Saturday, the Ottumwa Courier ran stories on visits by Huckabee and Thompson — on page A7. The front-page local news included a story on a snowstorm and another headline:

“Cardboard ban officially goes into effect beginning Tuesday.”

IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE that voters would want to know that candidates care about them enough to visit and work hard for their votes, but Iowans are so spoiled by all the attention given to them, that it has gone to their heads.

Before the Romney event in Pella, I was minding my own business, tape recorder and notebook in hand, waiting for the candidate to make his way through the crowd and begin his speech. A grinning young attendee noticed me and taunted, “I bet I get to interview him before you do!”

In offering an idealized portrait of Iowans (and out of fear of being seen as elitist), political reporters will often talk about how real Americans in Iowa have better things to do with their lives than obsess over politics. These real Americans would rather be watching the Orange Bowl on Thursday night than voting. This patronizing attitude is unfair both to Iowans and to the rest of America.

While it’s easy to understand how the political process can turn off voters, for all of the silliness that comes along with campaigns, the bottom line is at the end of this crazy circus, one person will emerge to become the most powerful leader in the world.

The president will help guide tax and spending policy, appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will make rulings for decades, determine under what circumstances America uses military force, and lead the nation through whatever crises may emerge in an uncertain world.

Voters often complain that the media control the political process, but Iowans have the unique opportunity to bypass the media and see all of the candidates up close, and even ask them questions directly. When next fall rolls around, many voters will complain about the lack of alternatives to the two major candidates, but because Iowa goes first, its voters have a chance to choose from a wide pallet of candidates in both parties.

Iowa’s status in presidential politics has real consequences. Because a given candidate may be forced to drop out after Iowa, voters in other states who may like that candidate will be denied the ability to vote for him based on what Iowans decide. It also prompts so-called small government Republicans to embrace farm subsidies and Democrats to advocate increasingly protectionist trade policies.

The power that Iowans exert over the selection of our president would perhaps have some justification if voters here lived up to the stereotype of being active and discerning. But if after all of the time, money, and energy candidates have concentrated on the state, nine out of ten voters stay home on caucus night, they will not have kept their end of the bargain.