Iowa's insurgents and Achilles' heels

The Iowa caucuses are more than an election-year sideshow -- in the past, they've resurrected sinking campaigns and helped catapult obscure candidates like Jimmy Carter to the White House.

Published January 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

At 7 o'clock Monday night, 65-year-old farmer Jack Drake will take time out from feeding cattle and tending to his corn, soybean and alfalfa farm to open up his Pottawattamie County home to his neighbors. Drake's wife, Shirley, will serve cookies and coffee. And then Drake, an eight-year Republican state representative, will lead one of the state's 2,100 or so caucuses that will help decide who will be the next president of the United States.

All across Iowa, caucus goers will debate candidates and elect delegates to their county conventions, who will at a later date select the state delegates who will finally choose the national convention delegates. But the initial rumble -- and the first ballots counted in Decision 2000 -- begins and ends Monday night.

Anyone can participate in the caucus as long as he or she will be 18 by Nov. 7, Election Day. You have to be a registered Democrat or Republican, of course, and at that specific party's caucus -- though you can register or even change your registration at the caucus itself.

The GOP process is a fairly simple affair. "I'm going to suggest somewhere between one or two minutes for anybody who wants to speak on behalf of the candidates," Drake says. "And then we'll vote."

Using secret ballots, each Republican caucus goer will choose among Texas Gov. George W. Bush, publisher Steve Forbes, commentator Alan Keyes, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Christian activist Gary Bauer and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. The results will be tabulated by appointed tellers and called into state GOP headquarters in Des Moines.

Three hundred seven miles northeast of Drake's rural abode, in a town called Decorah -- in the northeast corner of the state just 15 miles from the Minnesota border -- Jane and Irv Forester will open up their home for a Democratic caucus, which is somewhat different from its GOP counterpart. Democrats are chattier, and the rules are a bit more confusing.

"People will come and sign in," says Jane Forester , the retired former vice president of Northeast Iowa Community College. "Then we have to elect a chairman and a temporary chairman. Let me see, what do we do after that? I have the instructions written down here somewhere. Anyway, roughly, the first part of the evening is dealing with issues and if people have positions they want to talk about -- it could be about education or any policy -- and the group decides whether there's support for that or not. Then the last thing we do is declare for a candidate."

Democrats at the Foresters' home will separate into "preference groups" -- supporters for Vice President Al Gore by the fireplace, for instance, while those loyal to former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley can go into the kitchen. Then, assessing the proportion of support for each candidate, the Foresters' caucus will divide their small number of delegates accordingly.

Neither Drake, a Bush man, nor the Foresters, Gore supporters, have to remain neutral. Indeed, it's in the political thrust and parry that the caucuses differ from the solitary secrecy of primary and general elections.

"I support Al Gore. But we're going to let the other people in," Forester says, jokingly. "But we are very happy with the way the country's being run, and he was a very active part of it. We're not against Sen. Bradley, though. He's a good man."

Forester doesn't anticipate the "electricity" of the 1980 Jimmy Carter-Ted Kennedy caucus fights -- where an insurgent Kennedy took a third of the caucus votes, weakened Carter and helped send Ronald Reagan to the White House. "That was fairly memorable," she says. "Since then, it's been calmer."

Not everyone is as fond of the caucuses. Gore himself once griped that the caucuses are "an arcane procedure that produces crazy results."

That, of course, was in 1988, when Gore pulled out of the contest immediately before garnering a humiliating 0 percent of the vote, finishing behind Rep. Richard Gephardt, then-Sen. Paul Simon, then Mass. governor and eventual nominee Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, then-Sen. Bruce Babbitt, "Uncommitted" and a post-"monkey business" Gary Hart.

"There is something wrong with a nominating process that gives one state the loudest voice and then produces candidates who cannot even carry that state," Gore told the Los Angeles Times in November 1987. "A lot of voters all over the United States are asking themselves why the Iowa caucuses have been blown all out of proportion," Gore railed in the Nashville Tennessean in February 1988. And Gore told the Associated Press that he was "running for president of the United States, not president of Iowa."

Twelve years later, with the Iowa Democratic vote firmly in the vice president's pocket, Gore's take on the temperature-taking precinct meetings is a tad different. In fact, Gore repeatedly takes shots at Bradley for using much tamer invective. No doubt in anticipation of a fairly sizable loss, Bradley last week observed that the contest "rewards entrenched power." "Well, let me tell you," Gore now says as he repeats Bradley's quote, "fighting for people is what the Iowa caucuses are all about!"

Well, not really. The Iowa caucuses actually have more to do with lining up ducks, fighting for organization and pandering to special interest groups, be they farmers, labor or the Christian right. And with a track record of peculiar Iowa caucus winners -- Uncommitted (Democrat, 1972), Uncommitted (Democrat, 1976), George Bush (Republican, 1980) , Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (Democrat, 1988) and favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin (Democrat, 1992) -- the caucuses can't even claim a decent track record of selecting the parties' eventual nominee.

Other caucus detractors have been more consistent than Gore. The caucuses "are a hoax," Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul wrote last week. "There's little about Iowa to recommend it as a political bellwether. It lacks a great urban center and its economy is too dependent on a single industry, agriculture, its people too homogeneous to serve as a useful template for the nation."

It's this thinking -- as well as a relatively modest campaign bank account limiting the number of states in which he can compete -- that has contributed to the decision of McCain to forego the caucus altogether.

It might be a smart move by McCain, since expectations for him in Iowa are nil. A Sunday Des Moines Register poll had Bush at 43 percent, Forbes at 20 percent, Keyes and McCain tied with 8 percent each, Bauer with 6 percent and Hatch with 1 percent. Eleven percent of those polled were unsure whom they would vote for, and 3 percent were uncommitted. On the Democratic side, Gore had 56 percent,Bradley had 28 percent, 13 percent were unsure which candidate they would pick and 3 percent remained uncommitted.

But even though frontrunners Gush and Bore seem guaranteed to win the caucuses Monday, the contest does provide a useful function to voters and the media by allowing second- and third-place finishers to stand up and be counted. And while last summer's Iowa straw poll was derided as nothing more than a money contest, the unbelievably impotent showings there of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and former veep Dan Quayle showed that they couldn't even begin to compete with the money and organization of Bush and Forbes. The two men soon dropped out of the race.

With Gore and Bush the preordained winners this year, political reporters are interested to see just how resounding the victory of each front runner will be. How well will Bradley and Forbes do in their anticipated second-place finishes? And, what seems to be the biggest question this weekend is: Who will come in third in the GOP matchup? (The smart money's on Keyes.)

Much of the Iowa game is built on such fickle and foggy notions as meeting political expectations. But at times, it's the also-ran candidates who can reap the most benefit from the caucuses' quirky power. Second-place showings can propel a candidate to bigger and better things. Using a strategy masterminded by campaign manager Gary Hart, then-Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., worked his ass off in Iowa, realizing that a strong showing -- even second place -- would garner media attention and strengthen his campaign for the primary season. McGovern's second-place finish to Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, revealed Muskie's mile-wide, inch-deep support. And who can forget the out-of-nowhere second-place showing of then-Gov. Jimmy Carter (behind Uncommitted) in 1976?

Similarly, the 16.5 percent showing of then-Sen. Gary Hart compared to the 49 percent of heir apparent Walter Mondale in 1984 looked a lot like Buchanan's strong second place finish behind Dole in 1996. Both predicted and provided momentum to New Hampshire primary wins.

The Iowa caucus is also where the Achilles' heels of soon-to-lose incumbent presidents have first been exposed -- whether the strong second-place of Ronald Reagan (42 percent) behind then-President Gerald Ford (45 percent) in 1976, or the 31.2 percent Sen. Ted Kennedy garnered to Carter's 59.1 percent in 1980.

And then, of course, there are the showings that have meant little more than that candidate's ability to do well in Iowa's political Olympics: Gephardt's gold and Illinois' then-Sen. Paul Simon's silver in '88 (eventual nominee Dukakis got the bronze). Or Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson's one-two punch to eventual nominee and president Bush that same year.

With so much of the caucus coming down to money and organization, it should be no great shock that the wins are supposed to go to the richest two Republicans -- Bush and Forbes -- who have the party and the conservative establishments working for them, respectively. But who will come in third? It may be of little interest to all but the most numbers-addled political junkies, but it's a quick fix nonetheless.

Such measurements also place a great deal of emphasis on voter turnout. Worried that supporters won't brave the Iowa chill for what seems to be a foregone conclusion, the Bushies are calling around to make sure their troops attend their caucuses.

"My house has gotten three phone calls from the Bush campaign, which is three phone calls too many," says Iowa Speaker of the House Brent Siegrist, a Bush supporter.

Back at the farm, Drake's not sure how many people will show up. "We had a house full of people in 1980," he says, when Reagan won his precinct's caucus (though George H.W. Bush won statewide). But other caucuses since then have been as poorly attended as a revival meeting in Vegas. "Sometimes we only have gotten two people, three people, five people. I'm going to call all the other people in this precinct - it's strictly a rural precinct -- and let them know it's in our house this year."

After the ballots have all been counted, what will it all mean? Maybe not much. But the corn-fed citizens of Iowa are looking forward to it no matter what the result.

Says Forester, "The people of Iowa will think it through and decide for themselves and we'll have a good visit."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore Democratic Party George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.