"The road to the White House comes right through Iowa."
This comment from Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Sept. 16 about Iowa's toss-up status is a statement that has been echoed among surrogates, presidential candidates, partisan officials, and common folk - but is it true?
Just days after the governor's statement, Republican presidential nominee John McCain also stressed the importance of Iowa in the election.
"I and my great running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, are going to compete, and we're going to win the state of Iowa," he said on Sept. 18, emphasizing that Iowa is more hotly contested than most states.
For the last presidential two elections, Iowa has been just that - hotly contested. But this widespread perception has come into question recently, and a breakdown of active voters in the state further underscores that doubt.
When Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won Iowa in 2000, active Republican voters outnumbered Democrats by more than 40,000. In 2004, when President George Bush received Iowa's seven electoral votes, that gap had shrank to fewer than 5,000.
Now, with the presidential election looming large, registered Democrats in Iowa now outnumber their GOP counterparts by almost 100,000. That group also holds a 20 percentage point advantage over Republicans in requested absentee ballots, according to the Iowa Secretary of State's Office on Monday.
"I don't think we're a swing state," said Caroline Tolbert, a University of Iowa political-science associate professor, pointing to Obama's comfortable 10-point lead.
There are a "million reasons" for Obama's comfortable lead - the heavily attended Democratic Iowa caucuses, same-day voting and mobilization drives, and Iowa's proximity to Illinois, Tolbert said.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report - which looks at polls, past performance, and the overall political landscape for their weekly state rankings - currently classifies Iowa as "leaning" Democratic in the presidential election.
"If I'm a Democrat, I'm pretty happy about Iowa," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the independent newsletter, pointing to Obama's consistent lead in Iowa.
But Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University, wasn't ready to count McCain out in Iowa. He said the real indicator will come about two weeks before the election. If the number of McCain's advertising spots in Iowa stagnates, "you know they've given up," he said.
"He can make a run for it," said Goldford, highlighting the sheer number of Iowa independents, the largest voting bloc. "[But] he's looking up at daylight from a big dark hole. He's got his work cut out for him."
Other political followers also contend that Iowa remains a battleground state. The Johnson County Democrats say the "aggressive" push in advertising from both campaigns show that it's that way.
"I think everybody's vote is going to be important," said Brian Flaherty, the chairman of the Johnson County Democrats. "Judging by Iowa history, Iowa elections are close I think both sides see Iowa as important to them winning the race."
Despite the high number of independents in Iowa - totaling about 693,000 - UI political-science Associate Professor David Redlawsk said the majority of non-party voters consistently favor one party. And right now - due to caucus popularity, the pro-Democratic environment that's been intensified by the current financial crisis, and Obama's superior pre-caucus organization - Redlawsk said Iowa is "fertile ground for Obama."
"There's no real evidence that it's all that close," he said. "No one poll is by itself enough, but when youlook at the whole collection, you have to think [that's the] message," he said.