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Issues in the Iowa Caucus

posted on December 31, 2007 at 10:16 AM

In addition to determining candidate preferences, the caucuses also take on issues. Each of the 1,781 precincts can propose and debate resolutions that could find their way into party platforms at national conventions next summer. In some cases the effort can broad-based. A coalition of business and civic groups is pushing a measure to make chronic disease a campaign issue in 08. The coalition is led in part by former Iowa governors Branstad and Vilsack.

With us now are two observers of the caucus process. Todd Dorman is a columnist with "The Gazette" in Cedar Rapids. M.E. Sprengelmeyer has been deployed to Iowa by "The Rocky Mountain News."

Yeager: Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa.

Sprengelmeyer: It's great to be here.

Yeager: More for you, M.E. You came in April.

Sprengelmeyer: I've been here long enough, I could caucus if I felt like it.

Yeager: You could! You came in April. Tell us a little background about why you wanted to come to Iowa.

Sprengelmeyer: Well, I tell people in D.C. this all the time. I was sitting in my office in Washington, D.C. I'm a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News out there. And here I am in a town with marble columns everywhere and the military establishment is there and the Congress is there and every building is more intimidating than the next. And I went to my editor - I called my editor on the phone, and I said, "I want to go to Iowa." He said, "You want to go to Iowa?" I said, "Iowa is where the action is." And it's turned out to be so true. I mean from the day I got here - I got here on Easter Sunday, and it was freezing cold, I remember, and looking around for a place to stay. I settle on Sherman Hill, and since then it's been nonstop, seven days a week chasing a candidate, sometimes more than one candidate a day even back then in the spring.

Yeager: You're almost getting to cover candidates more than when they would be - even in D.C. You know, we have a couple of senators in the race. They not even in D.C. They out in Iowa more often, especially more than if you were in Colorado. What do you think of your initial -- When you said you wanted to come here, was the reason to get an up-close view, or were you trying to preface to say that the National Convention is coming to Denver, or what were some of your motivations?

Sprengelmeyer: It was multiple. I mean The Rocky Mountain News is the hometown paper of the Democratic National Convention in 2008, so we wanted to cover the run up to the Democratic race like we’ve never done in politics before. But number two, the candidates don't come to Colorado. We get a handful of visits a year, and when they do, it's a big deal. They shut down traffic and everything. But if we could do this, we could kind of annex the whole state of Iowa and declare it - put our flag down on Sherman Hill and say that, you know, Colorado owns this little piece of the process. We've been able to tell our readers about the candidates in a way that we never would have gotten the chance to if we just sat and waited for them to come to Colfax, you know, in Denver, you know.

Yeager: Right. Todd, you're a native Iowan. You've worked your career in the state. When you hear something like this, what are your initial reactions?

Dorman: I'm hoping that it leads to better skiing in Iowa. If Colorado is going to take over, we could maybe do something with that or our terrain. Yeah, I mean this is where the action is, and it's - This time it’s so much more dramatic than in the past. This is really interesting even for someone like me, who has seen this a few times, to kind of watch this develop. The intensity is really remarkable.

Yeager: I mean you were out here the entire process. You've seen when the candidates come out. In years past you've seen them when they do just a little exploratory. There's no big national media tailing them behind. You've seen it from the beginning to when it swells to the point we're at now, where there's just hordes or media around. Does any of that change your perspective over time on how the media grows since you've been in there the whole time?

Dorman: I think the horde gets here earlier and earlier, and this year, with kind of the intensity and the undecided nature of things, the fluidity of the race and the big names that are involved on both sides, there's big-name candidates. You saw late caucus attention focused on Iowa in June and July and the State Fair. I mean it was -- It seemed like the end of December, I mean based on the media attention and the amount of coverages. And with the Internet and all the new - and all the - Over time since I’ve been covering it even just since '96, the number of media outlets that are interested in politics and covering politics intensively has grown, and I think that’s reflective in the attention that the caucuses have gotten this time around.

Yeager: M.E., have you found some of these same things to be true just in the short time you’ve been here?

Sprengelmeyer: Oh, I was surprised. This is my second go-around. I came here in 1988, and I was right at the tail end for just the last week. And so I was one of those late-arriving, Johnny-come-lately courts back then. Well, now I think I've earned the right to scoff at those Johnny-come-lately courts. But I remember in April, one of the first stories I did was a guy named Marvin out in Cedar Rapids. And he runs a sound and lighting company. And even back then, they were facing a problem because of the big-name, celebrity candidates and all the attention, the big 10,000-person rallies like the one in Iowa City, they didn't have enough workers to staff all these events. It was -- It was shocking that the attention was that big way back then. It's only grown since.

Yeager: You talk about celebrities. I mean you see plenty of celebrities of sorts in the political game out in the capital. We've also seen celebrities like Oprah come out. And, Todd, you recently wrote a column about the Oprah/Obama - And so did everybody. What are your thoughts as -- I think you talked about the celebrity nature, and Iowans are just kind of like eh.

Dorman: Well, I think people are interested to see Oprah, obviously. Thousands of people showed up to those events, some who supported Obama and some who just wanted to see Oprah. I think the difference with this process is that there’s so much access to the candidates for voters and there’s so many chances to meet them one on one, actually, individually, that the need for these kind of middle people- middlemen kind of tell us who they support and, therefore, we follow their lead, the endorsements. I just don’t think it's as necessary. I'm not saying it's, you know, completely worthless or useless. Oprah is obviously a big draw, for one thing, but Iowans, like I say, don't need someone to tell them who to support because they can go out and make the decision on their own because of the access they have.

Yeager: And they have. I mean it appears-- Would you agree that -- Have you seen Iowans take it very seriously? Have you -- Have your impressions changed? What were your impressions about Iowans and the process? Did you feel that they were too much privilege for what they getting access to, or what were your thoughts coming in as opposed to now?

Sprengelmeyer: I am - I always tell the story of a woman I met in Newton, Iowa, who asked a question - who was singled out by Senator Clinton at the event. And afterwards I figured, well, she's got to be on Clinton's team. And she said, no, she still had some books to read. She was in the middle of reading a couple of books. She was meeting some of the candidates she’d only met a few times. It really taught me that, yes, I believe Iowans are somewhat spoiled by this attention that you get, but I think that most Iowans I've met realize that they're spoiled, in a sense, and so they pay that back, they keep - consider it a responsibility: We're given all this extra attention, so we better live up to it. And so I do find that the majority of people I've met, they're not going on just the name of the candidate sounds funny or whatever; they're picking candidates because they’ve actually studied them. I've been amazed by that.

Yeager: Todd, do you find the same thing with Iowans?

Dorman: Yeah. And I think this time -- One way it’s been reflected is I've run into more undecided voters this time at events than any of the other cycles. Usually some people have their minds made up. This time I think there’s the sense that it's a very important election, it’s very critical choice, and I think people in Iowa are kind of reserving judgment as long as they can and getting as much information as they can before they make that final decision.

Sprengelmeyer: And they're aware of the candidates too. They seem to be very well aware of the choice that they have, not just a couple of superficial things about a couple of people. They seem to really study up on them.

Dorman: They're very - a lot more knowledge about issues this time around than I've seen in the past, a lot more seriousness.

Yeager: And it's a race that we've never seen before, I mean for decades, where we’ve seen this wide open of a race. Quickly, just your thoughts on the horse race. We'll go -- We'll start with you, Todd. Just in thirty seconds, how do you pare down this race? How do you see it?

Dorman: It's too close to call on both sides. I think there are -- There are a lot of folks that haven't made up their minds yet. It's going to break in the last few days, I think. Obviously on the democratic side, you've got three contenders that have a chance to win. I'm not sure who comes out on the Republican side. It's wide open. Romney, Huckabee, it could go either way.

Sprengelmeyer: I'm going to be contrarian here and say that on caucus night, I'm going to be watching third place, especially on the Republican side. You know, these things go into conventional wisdom after a while, and you say, okay, this candidate is going to be number one, this guy is going to be number two. But there's going to be a lot of intrigue on who's third, on the Republican side especially.

Yeager: It's the three ticket out of the state, and it’s the third ticket who's really looking that way. As we come down -- Are you going to want to do this assignment in four years if Iowa is still first?

Sprengelmeyer: You know what? I definitely want to come back to visit Iowa and visit my family in Dubuque and Des Moines. But, whew, if it's going to be this, I need to have a couple cups of coffee and think about that.

Yeager: And, Todd, this has still been fun for you?

Dorman: Sure. I don't think I'm moving anywhere for awhile, so we'll see what happens. Hopefully things will break and we'll get it again.

Yeager: And you've lived in Des Moines, very quickly, but you're also now in Cedar Rapids. Do you still see the focus as intensely in Cedar Rapids as it is in Des Moines?

Dorman: Sure, yeah. It's very intense there. In fact, at this stage of the campaign, with so many voters in Eastern Iowa, we're seeing almost more candidates than they are here.

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