Not since 1988 have both the Republican and Democratic parties sought presidential nominees in the same year. It is the first time since 1952 that neither a president nor a vice-president has run in a presidential primary. Party nominations would seem to be wide open, especially in Iowa.
The state’s voters have traditionally embraced the responsibility to vet the candidates in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Iowans like to give everyone a good look. For their part, the candidates have swarmed to the state’s cultural venues.
Each August, sweltering legions descend on Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair. This year among the big hogs and big hats were presidential aspirants.
More than a few candidates rolled up their sleeves and sweated their way through the masses looking for support and shade. Trailing the candidates were the national media.
The motivation for candidates to spend time in Iowa is twofold: Iowa’s caucuses are at the front of the line and have been since 1972; and those caucuses favor the candidates who are here.
Before caucusing, Iowans want to be sure they know the candidate, so campaign commercials and mass mailings won’t do. Caucus goers expect to meet the candidates – several times. That takes time, but for unknowns time equals opportunity.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter methodically worked his way through the state. Trailing only the “uncommitted” delegates Carter’s second place finish helped propel the relative unknown into the White House.
Since those days, presidential aspirants have taken up residence, working the small town diners, and fraternal lodges--- any wide spot in the road. It became conventional wisdom that a finish in the caucuses’ first three places would make it worthwhile for the candidate to continue to compete in the primaries. The losers went home.
The system provided a hard-working candidate the opportunity to make a mark.
But the game has changed. The caucus and primary calendars have been moved forward and condensed. A large number of states traditionally hold primaries and caucuses on the same first Tuesday in March. This election cycle, those dates are one month earlier to February 5 -- it has siphoned some of the luster that once belonged to Iowa’s caucus and New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary.
In fact, Iowa Republicans may have even pre-empted their own caucus. Once just an August fundraiser, the Iowa GOP’s straw poll has become a serious political preference test in its own right.
Stumping in temperatures near triple digits, the candidates unleashed the forces of barbeque feting and feeding the faithful in hopes of garnering their vote in the preference poll.
Some candidates declined to take part in the poll – for fear of losing. Others cocooned themselves away from the crowds, while still others waded into the adoring throngs or followers.
Relative unknown Mike Huckabee brought his band Capitol Offense to the event. He finished second, separating himself from the lower tier of the field.
While Huckabee’s progress suggests the old formula can still work, the moneyed campaigns appear to be running outside the caucus tradition.
Candidates still come to Iowa, but not for weeks at a time. They hop in and out as though they are campaigning in a general election. The well funded campaigns look and feel more like presidential visits. Many of the events are staged to accommodate a single theme, and media access is controlled.
Even so, there are more media in the state than ever before. Bloggers and websites are now part of the pack providing caucus goers with no shortage of information. Yet, the 08 caucuses will be different.