It's not easy being an Iowan during a presidential election year.
Michele Bachmann is stalking me.
To be fair, it's not her, but it's her recorded voice, and it calls me every afternoon like clockwork. I now recognize the phone number. Some day, I think, it will actually be her, but alas, no. The instant I hear the recording, I hang up.
This is not a political statement. I hang up on Newt Gingrich's recorded voice as well, and he calls me almost as often. Every day—and I mean every single day the U.S. Postal Service operates—I toss away a piece of campaign literature from Rick Perry. So far, Rick Santorum has left me alone, which tells me he either has an ineffective organization or the good sense to realize that daily recorded phone calls annoy voters more than inspire them. In any event, it makes me more inclined to support him.
On Jan. 3, Iowans will gather in more than 1,700 venues across the state and caucus, the first step in the presidential nominating process. Democrats will select Barack Obama; Republicans will choose—well, that's anyone's guess. One of six leading candidates, most likely.
I am a registered Republican, which only means I opted to vote in the last GOP primary. I have also registered as a Democrat and as an independent in the past. But having registered as a Republican this year means that I'm on every GOP presidential candidate's mailing and telephone list. Lucky me.
Oh, sure, it's great when the candidates whisper sweet nothings in our ears about ethanol. We enjoy watching them try to look presidential while gulping a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair. It's a hoot spotting Maureen Dowd or George Stephanopoulos in the Des Moines skywalk system. But it's not easy being an Iowan during a presidential election year. Let's put it this way: It's like being seduced by a smart, aggressive, well-groomed and not hideously-looking stranger. Flattering at first, then annoying, then a little strange.
This is the first time since 1984 I haven't enjoyed a ringside seat as a reporter for the Des Moines Register. Back then, of course, I cared deeply about the latest poll results, or a candidate's new TV commercial, or which candidate appeared to be gaining momentum. This year has been different. I'm the average Iowan. At least the average Iowan who's no longer obsessed with politics. It has been a revelation.
For one thing, now that I don't see most of the candidates up-close-and-personally, most of my impressions are formed by the media, the paid and unpaid kind. It pains me to admit this to my former colleagues, but I rarely read or watch their stories. The 7,345 cable television commentators—who begin every sentence with, “Look,” and end every sentence with “moving forward”—are simply background noise. Mitt Romney is going after Newt Gingrich! Yawn. Rick Perry forgot something! Yawn. Ron Paul doesn't care if Iran gets nukes! Zzzzzz... Wait, what?
Here's what you quickly discover once you're removed from the daily political grind: People don't care about politics as much as the media think they do or wish they would. And that includes Iowans.
The stereotype is that Iowa is a good place to begin the presidential campaign because people here take their responsibility seriously and take the time to study the candidates. That's true, to a point. The fact is, in a state of 3 million people, roughly 100,000 or so will attend the competitive Republican caucuses. With their candidate chosen, the Democrats likely will attract far fewer voters. That leaves a whole bunch of Iowans who have decided there are better things to do than helping select the next leader of the free world.
I recently sat in on focus groups of young Republican and Democrat voters that was sponsored by Simpson College, a liberal arts college near Des Moines where I now work, and Harvard University (if you're going to name-drop, go big.) Most of these voters were extremely disenchanted with politics, especially the young Democrats, who believed Obama had not produced the hope and change he promised. The exception—and this was true among Republicans, Democrats, and independents—were those who supported Ron Paul.
This is the story I think all those reporters criss-crossing Iowa these days are missing. Average voters are so fed-up with the status quo in both parties that they are willing to seriously consider a non-traditional candidate like Paul.
The frustration is palpable. There's the Tea Party. The Occupy Iowa movement, which has conducted protests at candidate party headquarters and is expected to try to disrupt the caucuses. And, finally, there are the voters who are so angry they're going to sit this one out. This could help Paul.
Or maybe not. One of the more entertaining aspects to this election is how every candidate who takes the lead in Iowa is immediately ambushed by a slew of negative campaign commercials, some paid for by other candidates, some by political action groups.
It's difficult to exaggerate how many campaign commercials Iowans are subjected to. And they provide two diametrically opposed portraits: This candidate is such a great human being we must use adjectives normally reserved for super-heroes to describe him or her. Or, this candidate is a dangerous, erratic, shameful waste of oxygen who will spend your hard-earned money even more eagerly than Obama. The commercials run all day long, on every local station. Sometimes the "hero" ads and "creep" ads run back-to-back. It can be difficult to sort through it all.
I know the caucuses are good for Iowa. Specifically, they are good for restaurant owners, car-rental shops, hotels and local TV stations. It's also, I guess, a mostly positive thing that the nation cares what Iowa thinks every four years. When does the country ever care what Kansas thinks? (Apologies to Bob Dole.)
But part of me is tired of this. Tired of hearing that Iowa isn't representative enough of the country. Tired of snarky articles, like a recent one in The Atlantic, that portray the state as “Ma and Pa Kettle on crack.” Tired of national reporters spending a week in a Des Moines hotel and writing as if they know what Iowans are thinking.
The fact is, the Iowa caucuses aren't the Iowa caucuses anymore. They are a blitz of mailers and commercials. The idea that a candidate will sit in someone's backyard and visit with neighbors on a summer evening over a pitcher of lemonade is done, replaced by scrums of reporters, documentary producers, and opposition-research agents who follow a candidate's every word, listening for something stupid that can be posted on YouTube. Iowans have become props.
Sigh... I'm not kidding anyone, am I? I'd miss Iowa being first. It's fun to be wooed, even if we know the candidates will leave us on Jan. 4 to pursue that tart New Hampshire.
Who will call me with their recorded greetings then? Who will send me mail every day? Who will fill my television set the way Rick Perry does, with his relentless declarations of religious faith?
“I think we all need God's help,” he says in one commercial.
Amen, brother. Hurry back.