Last week, Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. , told a group of Iowans that their state "will make the difference" in her husband's presidential bid. "If Barack doesn't win Iowa," she suggested, "it's just a dream."
Obama is in a dogfight in the Hawkeye state: Polls show him in a tight, three-way contest there with Sen.and former Sen. among Democratic voters. His campaign manager, David Plouffe, has argued that the senator is in better shape than the polls suggest, however. That's thanks to a "hidden vote" from young voters, who the campaign argues are often missed in traditional surveys.
For 35 years, Iowa has been the first state to hold its presidential nominating contest. It is now, once again, ground zero in the race for the White House. After some early speculation that one or more of the Democratic frontrunners might skip the state's caucuses, all three have poured resources into in Iowa, raising the stakes -- and expectations.
The date for the upcoming caucuses is still not set, but they are expected to take place in the first days of January. There will then be a rapid series of primaries culminating in a showdown on Feb. 5, when many states hold their contests and a nominee is likely to emerge. A win or better-than-expected showing in Iowa can give a candidate serious momentum going forward. It can mean greater media attention, campaign cash, and support from the political establishment. A disappointing finish there, by contrast, could be disastrous.
Unlike primaries, in which voters have multiple opportunities to show up at their polling location and vote, caucuses are essentially neighborhood meetings. Voters come together at an appointed time to discuss their party platform and select their preferred candidate.
"It traditionally takes place on a Monday night in the winter," notes Drake University professor of politics Dennis J. Goldford. "You've got to hope that the babysitter shows up, got to hope there's no blizzard, and got to be prepared to stick around for a couple hours. It's a greater demand on your time and energy than a primary." According to Goldford, barely one in five potential voters usually shows up to their caucus.
The majority of those who do show are usually over the age of 55, according to veteran Iowa pollster Ann Selzer. And that doesn't work in Obama's favor, says Steve McMahon, media advisor for Howard Dean in 2004. Dean, like Obama, had an early following among young voters. He led in many polls going into the caucuses, only to finish a weak third.
"Iowa is not exactly designed for a guy like Barack Obama or Howard Dean," says McMahon. "The voters tend to be older, less well educated, and less affluent generally than primary voters in larger states."
Obama's message of change, Goldford says, "plays into the relatively cynical attitude of young voters." To reap the rewards of that appeal, he needs to convince those voters to register as Democrats and show up at the caucuses. Since the total number of voters is relatively small -- in 2004, about 100,000 Iowans participated in the Democratic caucuses -- it doesn't take a huge number of new supporters to swing the vote in a candidate's favor.
But that's easier said than done. The last time a "hidden vote" materialized in Iowa was in 1988, when Pat Robertson drew religious conservatives to the caucuses and finished a surprising second. Young voters are traditionally one of the most difficult voting blocks to harness. "In the Dean campaign we had a 'hidden vote,' too," says McMahon. "Unfortunately it stayed hidden right through the caucuses."
Former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer, who has endorsed Obama, says it's a mistake to assume that Obama will suffer the same fate as Dean.
"I think Obama is the exception that proves the rule," he says. "In all my many years of political activity I have not seen a candidate with Obama's talent. I have not seen young people as excited about a candidate, including Dean. He's just on a different level. He's so energized young people, and it's not just young people -- there's minorities, independents, even some Republicans, people who don't normally caucus."
Fischer says it's also important to remember that the Obama campaign isn't focused solely on young people.
"The campaign has told me that they're looking at young people as the icing on the cake, but they're still baking the cake," he says. "They're working very, very hard with traditional caucus goers, whatever their age."
Obama spent much of September in Iowa, and he is again campaigning there this week. That's because Iowans tend to reward candidates who spend time in the state, shaking hands with locals and engaging in retail politics. They also reward a good statewide organization, and according to McMahon, Obama has one of the best. (Clinton, Edwards, Sen., Sen. , and Gov. have all built up strong organizations in Iowa as well, according to Carrie Giddins, spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic Party.)
It is difficult to know exactly where Obama stands now. Polls in caucus states can be particularly unreliable, since it's difficult to predict which voters will actually show up to caucus. And a lot can happen between now and the caucus date. Obama should get a boost if young Iowans turn out, but he runs a risk in appealing to a voting block that has traditionally stayed home, despite campaigns' best efforts.
"Habitually, the younger people don't show," says Selzer. "But anything could happen."
By Brian Montopoli