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An Outsider's View of the Iowa Caucuses

posted on January 3, 2008 at 10:14 PM

To outsiders, political homage to Iowa’s blended fuel may seem curious, but perhaps no more so than its caucus system. Here to share their take on the process are two non-Iowans.

Geoff Elliott is a reporter for "The Australian," a national newspaper comparable to USA Today, and Matt Taibbi is Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone Magazine. Both have been covering the campaigns.

Yeager: Gentlemen, welcome. Interesting perspectives. I really want to hear what the two of you have to say. Geoff, I'm going to start with you. You've come the farthest. Why is Australia and "The Australian" caring about the Iowa caucus?

Elliott: Well, you know, the U.S. presidential race has a big influence in Australia in political terms. We have a strong security alliance with the U.S. Going back to the second World War and beyond that, in fact. So there's just a lot of interest in the political cycle. We pick up a lot of your pop culture. We pick up a lot of your political culture as well. So I think people look for trends and they're just looking for who is going to be the leader of the free world.

Yeager: And this has been a big story. The last two days you've been on the front page of your home paper.

Elliott: That's right. We did a preview piece a couple of days ago. Today I wrote a story on John McCain. I've been quite interested in his kind of resurgence in the last few days. It's something that's obviously been happening over the last custom months, but he seems to be back in the picture.

Yeager: Give us a quick Australian civics lesson about how your process differs from how we're picking -- how we're picking, at least on the caucus process. Are there any similarities between the two?

Elliott: Yeah, there is, actually. It's interesting to see people get confused about the democratic side on the caucus system and the preferential system. In fact, in Australia we have preferential voting -- secret ballots, but preferential voting. Of course, you go into the booth, you check one, two, three for your candidate. So, yeah, the caucus system itself here to me is a bit of a relic in a sense, particularly on the Democratic side, the way that people have to cajole people to come on across to their side and all that sort of stuff.

Yeager: It's a lot of horse trading. It's like going to the horse track to pick your party, and then it's like horse trading when you're trying to pick a candidate.

Elliott: Yeah, that's right.

Yeager: I'll get to your impressions in a little bit. But, Matt, I want to bring you into the conversation. This is your second time to Iowa for the caucus. You were here in '04. Anything changed from '04 to '08 in the way this process seems to be taking over Iowa?

Taibbi: Well, I think there's a lot more interest in this race this time around just because there aren't any obvious front runners. Last time, obviously, John Kerry's surprise emergence here was a big surprise.

But I think this time around, the utter chaos on both sides of the ticket is something that's kind of unprecedented. It has not only the country spending a lot more time focusing on Iowa, but I think there's unprecedented press attention here. I've never seen crowds like this for so many different candidates. No matter where you go, there are crowds of hundreds of journalists following the big ones here.

Yeager: Including "Rolling Stone," your magazine. You cover a lot of things in the magazine. But why does "Rolling Stone" care about politics?

Taibbi: Well, we have a long tradition of covering the campaign trail. I mean going back to the late '60s and early '70s, Hunter Thompson was our famous writer, and he actually probably made campaign coverage sort of a trendy thing for journalists to do. That was our signature political thing back then, and we've continued to do it since then. This is sort of continuing that tradition now.

Yeager: Now, you've written a couple of articles. Your big ones have been on Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. You've talked about them both. Right now they're the ones that look like they're ahead in the polls. What are your thoughts going into tonight? I mean everything is deciding as we speak. What have been your thoughts covering from a "Rolling Stone" perspective on why your readers need to care about these two gentlemen?

Taibbi: Well, it's not just those two. It's all of them. I think for young voters, I think there's a schism on the democratic side. I think the over-forty Democrats are going to tend to support Hillary Clinton more. Barack Obama and John Edwards, I think they're both going to have more appeal for the younger, the 18-35 demographic that we tend to write for. So we spend some time focusing on those two guys especially.

Barack Obama is a guy that has a lot of appeal to young people just because he's young himself and he's more forward thinking. I think his campaign is more focused on what's going to be rather than Hillary Clinton. She does a lot of talking about what she did during the Clinton years and looks back at the '90s, and she tries to celebrate those times as the golden age; whereas there isn't so much of that in the Obama campaign.

Elliott: I was at a Hillary Clinton event yesterday, and I think she's run the risk of being defined by the Obama campaign. I noticed that continued reference to the '90s. However that plays out, I guess we'll see.

Yeager: Democrats are trying to compare themselves to what -- they call the '90s a glory time for them. Regardless of a couple of things that went on in the White House with Bill Clinton, they think it was a good time, so they want to play back to it. In fact, Barack Obama yesterday in Cedar Rapids, he even said -- we have part of his campaign speech where he says: "Bill Clinton was right then. Barack Obama is right now."

When you talk about younger voters, I want to get into that a little bit more. It always appears -- Obama is going after younger voters; that's clear. But are the younger voters going to come out? They've never seem to come out in the past. Why is it that they seem to be so apathetic. They talk, yes, I'm here. Howard Dean had the same thing four years ago. But how do you energize that? How do you get that base to come out?

Taibbi: It's a big mystery. And I think that was one of the things that shocked everybody last time around. Howard Dean -- I covered Howard Dean from the very beginning, and I remember going on a tour with him a year before the election. And, you know, he was crisscrossing the country, and he had crowds of five, ten thousand come out. They were all young people. Most of them were college kids who were upset about the war. They were upset about the war in '04 too.

And everybody expected that coming into Iowa that there was going to be this massive turnout just like what happened for George McGovern, for instance, in 1972. It was a very similar situation. We had an entrenched Republican president and a war that was unpopular with young people, and yet that young voting block never materialized for Howard Dean.

So there's some uncertainty going into this race whether that's going to happen again for Obama and for Edwards this time around, and whether Hillary Clinton is going to be the beneficiary for that. On the flip side, I would argue that Hillary -- the danger that she runs is that she's not really too many people's second choice. I think everybody that is going to vote for her is already voting for her.

It's not like people aren't aware of who she is. They've had a long time to think about whether or not they're going to vote for her. If she's not already their person, they're not going to go in and change their mind.

Yeager: Geoff, what is Australia's interest in this election? Of course, there's interest from a world view. But specifically to your country, why would Australia care who our president is? We've already gone in on several things in the past you mentioned a little bit. What stands out as a couple of the key --

Elliott: Well, the things that Matt is touching on, too, I think the dynamics of this race are so open. The first time in eighty years since incumbents haven't been in the race and the firsts that will be -- if you had a gun at your head now, and you said that a Democrat was likely to take the White House in 2009, it's probably either going to be a woman or an African American.

Yeager: Well, how is that going to play in Australia? How is that going to play from --

Elliott: I think that people will just be very excited about the change. The polling in Australia on things like the Iraq war and on George Bush himself, it sort of tracks similar to the U.S. We've just had an election in Australia, and the conservative government was tossed out after eleven years. John Howard was very close to George Bush. So we have a new team in place now in Australia, and I think people will kind of be interested to see if that new change is also replicated here, which I think everyone would argue that's what's going to happen.

Yeager: All right. I want to ask a final question to both of you. What do you think of Iowa's role in all of this? How come you have to get dispatched to Iowa and not, say, a warmer climate like a Florida or a Texas or a New Mexico or a Key West? Is that where you were trying to go? What are your thoughts in coming to Iowa to start this?

Elliott: Yeah, I mean, I guess you've got to start somewhere, right? It is cold. It's cold. I've never been in a place so cold. But where else is it going to be? I guess historically Iowa has fulfilled this role -- certainly since the '70s with Jimmy Carter's success. So it would be nice if it was in some warmer climates, but we've got to start somewhere.

Yeager: Matt, you're based on the East Coast. A lot of people over there say: "Why do they get to pick?"

Taibbi: Right. I think a lot of people wonder why it's Iowa. In the rest of the country, there's probably four urban residents for every one rural resident. In Iowa, obviously the ratio is much different here. Also, there isn't nearly the kind of minority population in the state that there would be in a large urbanized state. So I think there are questions around the country about why Iowa gets to be the state that picks the president when it's not so representative of the rest of the country.

On the flip side I would say, as a reporter, that when I come to Iowa, I'm always amazed at how educated the people are about the issues and how seriously they take their responsibility in terms of choosing the president. Because when you go to other places, they tend -- I mean, in Iowa, when somebody stands up and asks a question in a town hall, they know the details of the Military Commissions Act for 2006.

Yeager: Which is impressive. Should everybody be required to go and caucus?

Taibbi: Well, I don't know about required, but I think it's impressive that they do take it that seriously.

Elliott: We have compulsory voting in Australia. That's the one thing I would say about the process here. In Australia we have compulsory voting. About 98 percent turnout. You get fined if you don't vote. It's interesting, I think here in America, the drive to get the vote out elevates the social issues particularly. The politicians have to get the vote out, so it elevates the rhetoric. In Australia, I think it's a little bit flatter in terms of some of the social hot button issues that we get here.

Yeager: What would you think if everybody had to go? Quick answer.

Taibbi: If everybody had to go?

Yeager: Yeah.

Taibbi: Personally I'm for it. I think what happens when you don't have mandatory voting is that the only -- historically the people who do turn out to vote tend to be more affluent and educated, so what happens is the issues tend to get skewed toward -- in favor of -- the politicians tend to gear their campaigns toward the wealthier people. And so that's why I think if more people went to the polls, then you'd have more politicians paying more attention to the issues that affected everybody.

Yeager: Matt Taibbi of "The Rolling Stone," Geoff Elliott of "The Australian." Gentlemen, thank you for coming in tonight.

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