Battleground: Iowa

They sparked Kerry's comeback in the primary season. Will Hawkeye State voters now put him in the White House?

Published October 26, 2004 8:51PM (EDT)

Lloyd Pratt, owner of a fledgling Web design business, feels no affinity to either political party. At age 38, he has never voted before. But this year? "Most definitely, oh yes," he said, pausing from repair work on his home in a modest neighborhood of this Mississippi River town. "I totally disagree with the way Bush has managed our country."

Pratt, wearing a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, ticked off a litany of reasons for his decision to plunge into electoral politics. First, he objects to the war in Iraq, undertaken simply to avenge President Bush's father, he believes. "Bush lied to the country and killed thousands, and nobody is talking of impeachment?" he said incredulously. "In my opinion, it's murder. He should have gone after the person who attacked our country." And by spending money on the war, Pratt said, the government has neglected needs at home, like healthcare. His wife, who runs her own small business, has had cancer, and neither can afford health insurance. Now they also worry about paying rising heating bills as winter approaches. The Bush tax cuts "didn't do me a lick of good," Pratt said, and Bush's "trickle-down" economic policies have meant that "it's impossible for us to operate our businesses. Nobody wants to spend money on new products."

"I have neglected my duties as a citizen," he acknowledged a bit shamefacedly, "but none of the elections before made as big a difference as this year. This year I totally disagree with the person in office."

New voters like Pratt and his wife may prove decisive in the presidential race in this key state with seven electoral votes. Iowa went for Al Gore in 2000 by 4,144 votes out of 1.3 million cast. (Bill Clinton won by a healthy margin four years earlier.) But the U.S. Senate is split between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat; the House delegation includes four Republicans and only one Democrat; and the state government is split between a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature. The most recent polls show dead heats to small leads for either John Kerry or Bush, and partisans on both sides see the race as a tossup.

As a result, the airwaves are thick with ads. The pro-Kerry ads stress domestic issues like sending jobs offshore or bequeathing budget deficits to coming generations, and the pro-Bush ads attack Kerry "and his liberal allies in Congress" for being soft on defense or portray Bush as a compassionate, strong leader against terrorism, embracing a little girl. Both candidates and their running mates, as well as proxies, have been working Iowa with nearly the personalized intensity of the state's famous caucuses. After both Bush and Kerry staged major events the week before last (with the Kerry campaign claiming a record turnout for an Iowa political event and reporting empty chairs at Bush's rally), they again held major rallies last week on the same day, separated by only one hour and one county. John Edwards also spent two days campaigning in Iowa last week. Bush, who had already visited Iowa more than Kerry, was back in Davenport on Monday.

After four years of dramatic events and controversial policies -- two wars, terror attacks, four major tax cuts, unusually weak post-recession job growth, rising inequality and disputes over protection of basic rights -- many Iowans are approaching Election Day with strong emotions, often fear.

"John Kerry scares the hell out of me. You don't know what he's going to do or say," said Larry Steward, 65, a retired corrections officer and self-described political independent, who has voted Republican since Reagan first ran for president, as he waited in line for tickets to a Bush event at Republican Party headquarters -- where the walls are decorated with a Halloween-themed poster asking, "President Kerry? Now That's Scary." John Ortega, co-chairman of the local Republican Party, is afraid of what he thinks Kerry will do. "He's for stem cell research, which I think is wrong," Ortega said. "He's for abortion. If he's in office, I think he'll repeal the ban on partial-birth abortions. He's for gay marriage."

But he says he's against gay marriage, I observe. "If he's elected, he'll be for gay marriage," Ortega insists. "It scares me, if he's elected, what will happen."

They're not the only ones feeling scared. "President Bush is the first president who really scares me," explained William Olsen, 51, vice president of a union representing workers at the Rock Island Arsenal, as he went door to door in Davenport talking to union members earlier this fall. "This guy is [for] big business all the way through. He's taken too many rights from working-class people." Olsen is also sharply critical of Bush's Iraq policies. "War isn't always the answer," he said, reflecting on his own bitter experience as a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Polls show an Iowa divided nearly along the same lines as it was four years ago. In the end the race could come down to new voters and those who do not share the deep emotions of partisans. If so, Kerry could very well have the edge.

Iowa has "been a battleground state in every election," Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack told Salon in an interview. "We have strong feelings, progressive and conservative, and each election is won by a fairly small margin." The recent exception is senior Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, who seems headed toward an easy victory this year with a campaign that is very personal and not closely linked to Bush's campaign.

But Vilsack is optimistic about Kerry's chances in his state. "It's all in the numbers in the early voting and registration war," he said. Iowa is divided into roughly three equal parts politically, but independents have the edge in registration. In 2000 there were about 25,000 fewer registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, but this year Republicans lead by only 8,000. Part of the reason is changing demographics -- Iowa is now less rural and more Latino.

"We've become more competitive as Iowa has become more urbanized," Iowa Democratic Party chairman Gordon Fischer said. "Now the 10 most populous counties -- with cities like Des Moines, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Iowa City -- have more population than the ... 89 [least populous] counties."

Most of the voters registered by the party and partisan groups such as unions, the Iowa Citizen Action Network (an affiliate of USAction) and America Coming Together (the leading independent "527" group) are likely to vote for Kerry. But the work of some nonpartisan groups may also indirectly benefit him. The New Voters Project, for example, has registered 36,000 18-to-24-year-olds in Iowa, including 12,000 around Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa and the third largest New Voters Project operation in the country. "We've been getting an amazing response from young people," said organizer Aaron Saeugling. "A lot of people said, 'I didn't vote in the last election, but I am this year.'" Although 70 percent registered as independent, a study by Harvard University's Institute of Politics suggests they will disproportionately vote for Kerry.

The Democratic forces in Iowa have pushed harder than the Republicans for early votes, in both absentee ballots and satellite early polling stations, and the balloting has gone strongly to Kerry. Late last week, Democrats figured that at least 108,000 out of 190,000 early votes went for Kerry, since they came from identified supporters, and 56,000 went for Bush, with the remainder probably split roughly in the same proportion. With a week to go, already 60,000 more absentee ballots have been cast than in 2000.

Republicans assert that Democrats are simply moving up the date of their votes, not adding voters. But Fischer argues, based on the party's voter identification file, that "about one-third of the absentee ballots are [from] weak-voting or sporadic-voting Democrats." When the party surveyed nonvoters in 2000, it found that about one-fourth didn't vote because of some unexpected Election Day crisis. "We think it's smart to bank these votes early," he said. "Even if just getting out others who would vote, we can click them off the list and save a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to focus on other voters on Election Day."

The gains in registration and early voting reflect not only persistent organizational work but also Iowans' passions about the issues and candidates, with a curious contrast between Kerry and Bush voters. During two days of interviews with voters from both camps in Iowa, I was struck by the degree to which Republicans explained their votes as support for Bush, the man and president. Kerry supporters talked relatively little about the senator's personal appeal. And despite their generally intense loathing of Bush, they were much more likely to talk about administration policies, not Bush's personal qualities, such as the long-standing doubts about his intelligence.

Bush is "a man of integrity," said Walgreens manager Gary Hentzel. "I like his frankness," said Web designer James Schmedding. "He is not fake. What you see is what you get. He talks straight." Accountant Erin Ricciuti thinks Bush is "impressive and sincere." "President Bush is such a better moral person," said Republican co-chairman Ortega, recently demoted -- without complaint -- from his supervisor job in a corporate downsizing after nearly 45 loyal years at an insurance company. "Kerry is supposed to be a practicing Catholic, but he's for abortion and homosexuality, and that's against his religion."

Beyond their personal regard for Bush, his supporters most frequently cited their agreement with his policies on the war on terror, Iraq and tax cuts. Even those who benefited only modestly from Bush's tax cuts embraced the idea that it is good to cut the taxes of the rich the most, with the expectation they will then create new jobs. Despite an occasional mention of fiscal responsibility, Iowa Republicans seem to have abandoned their old hatred of deficits and, like Walgreens' Hentzel, simply have no answer about who ultimately should pay the costs of government. But there were occasional misgivings about Iraq and grumbles that the Bush administration had spent too much money. "I'm one of his bigger fans," corrections retiree Steward said, "but I'm not sure he should have gone to Iraq. And he should have had plans for after the war was done."

Their critique of Kerry often cheerfully embraced the contradictory attack of the Bush campaign. On the one hand, Kerry is consistently a wild-eyed liberal: "Kerry is so off the wall it's ridiculous," Ortega said. "He's far off, off the wall." On the other hand, they say, nobody knows what he stands for, and he changes positions all the time. "I don't know what Kerry is for," Steward said. "I'm not sure he knows."

Also striking was how many of the Republicans in Davenport based their views on clearly mistaken information. Erin Ricciuti, for example, supports Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq because "I believe weapons of mass destruction are still there." Indeed, although Bush's own inspection team reported that it found no WMD or a significant program to create them, 73 percent of Bush supporters, compared with 26 percent of Kerry supporters, believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons or a serious program, according to a recent study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

The perceptions of Bush's supporters in Iowa are at odds with the facts on other issues. For example, oblivious to the divisions even in his own state, Steward said, "Bush has brought the country together for the first time. It's solidified." And Schmedding, despite a rise in unemployment in Iowa that had just been reported, sunnily declared, "I think [Bush] has actually created jobs."

But nobody requires voters of any party to have command of the facts or exhibit logical consistency. Joy Meyers, a teacher's aide who was standing in line for tickets to hear Bush, at first sounded like a subversive plant, perhaps a rare Ralph Nader supporter or at least a Kerry backer. Since we have our own WMD, she argued, it's understandable that other countries would want them as well, so why not get rid of all such weapons? And why not concentrate on finding Osama bin Laden rather than going after Saddam? But she was enthusiastically for Bush. "God has his plan," she explained, presumably referring to Bush's reelection. "He already knows what's going on."

Social issues -- God, guns and gays, plus a heavy emphasis on abortion -- both motivate and divide Bush supporters in Iowa. The balancing act is reflected in the party's local leadership of Scott County, where Davenport is located. Republican co-chairwoman Susan Frazer, who has worked in public relations and whose husband owns an R.V. dealership, represents the traditional small-business base of the party. She was a bit evasive, but seemed moderate on abortion, clearly promoting the "big tent" of diverse views in the party. But co-chairman Ortega, a devout Catholic, views homosexuality as a sin and considers opposition to abortion and gay marriage to be the focal points of Republican politics. He reflects the new religious right in Iowa, with roots in many less affluent middle-class and working-class households.

Just north of Davenport along the Mississippi River, Republicans have made inroads in the heavily Roman Catholic, traditionally industrial city of Dubuque by supporting a strong anti-abortion movement. The city is still strongly Democratic, but most local Democratic officeholders are not pro-choice, and many Democratic voters in the area abandon national pro-choice Democrats, cutting into the margins needed there by candidates like Kerry to counterbalance disproportionately Republican western Iowa. Republican exploitation of the political potential of the anti-abortion movement in Dubuque began in the 1980s, according to local union leader and political operative Francis Giunta, when the city had the dubious distinction of landing on the cover of Time magazine for having -- at 25 percent -- the highest unemployment rate in the country. In a bid for wavering Catholic voters, Kerry recently attended mass in Dubuque with state Rep. Pat Murphy, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights.

I joined former political science student Ben Rogers, a regional organizer for America Coming Together, in a walk around a working-class neighborhood of Davenport, a mix of rundown or abandoned homes and others that were carefully maintained. It looked like a place where complaints about job losses, cost and availability of health insurance or prescription medicine, retirement insecurities and other bedrock Democratic issues would be paramount. While residents often mentioned those issues, their strong opposition to Bush was most often expressed as criticism of the war in Iraq.

"I don't believe George Bush is doing what he said he would do," said Rebecca Brodersen, a waitress with two children. "We shouldn't focus so much on Iraq -- being over there rebuilding -- and not on our own economy and education." Leroy Hull, a retired factory worker and avid woodworker, was opposed to the war from the beginning. "Saddam wasn't causing any trouble," he said. "Bush had that [invasion] in his head even before he was president."

Democrats are convinced that Kerry will ultimately win Iowa because voters are upset by a weak economy. In addition, Kerry has campaigned on Iowa-specific issues, such as support for biological fuels and a crackdown on methamphetamine production. In September Iowa still had 22,000 fewer jobs than at the start of the recession in March 2001 -- not as large a percentage loss as in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, but worse than in many other neighboring states. Over the past four years 70,000 Iowans became uninsured, and the average family health insurance premium increased by 40 percent. Voters are "being driven by economic issues -- plant closings, offshoring, shifts to Mexico," said Gov. Vilsack. "They realize their economic future is on the line."

Iowa Federation of Labor president Mark Smith, a harsh critic of both Bush and the war, largely agrees, and the labor movement has mostly limited its references about the war to a critique of Bush administration priorities -- money for war, not education -- and a defense of Kerry's military record by union members who served with him. "It's so hard for me to figure out why anybody with a 75 IQ or above could be for this guy Bush," Smith says. "Bush four years ago, I could understand, compassionate conservatism and all that bullshit." This year, he said, "healthcare, jobs, retirement security seem to be the issues people will choose. Like [former Labor Secretary] Robert Reich says, they're the anxious class: If you're not laid off, you know somebody down the street or in your union who is, and your children are not even going to have the opportunity for decent jobs." Gerald Messer, who heads the local labor federation encompassing Davenport, added, "I think the war has taken on more importance than economic issues. However, it will ultimately come down to whether you are better off today than four years ago. We're sticking with economic issues, Social Security, healthcare. Those are the major issues. But the war is playing a bigger role than I thought it would."

Aside from the vote-early efforts by Democrats, there's a last-ditch battle for undecided voters. "Even at this late date," said Dino Leone, a staff representative for the public workers union (AFSCME) in Illinois, on loan for political work in Iowa, "undecideds are going slowly to our side, and we've been able to get some turnarounds. One bricklayer who came here from Chicago had a story about canvassing another bricklayer in Davenport who was for Bush all the way. Then they talked about issues, about how good jobs were leaving the country and what that means to union people as a whole. Then he got into it about health insurance, how Bush had done nothing. He got the guy to commit for Kerry, and even got him to put up a Kerry sign in front of his house." By the Davenport labor movement's count of members it has canvassed, about 73 percent support Kerry (compared with 65 percent who said they supported Gore four years ago), and some remain undecided. "My gut feeling is we're even higher than that," Messer said.

But the biggest challenge for Kerry may be the widespread sense of despair and futility among low-income voters. As Rogers and I made the rounds of the blue-collar neighborhood, we encountered Chester, a radio DJ from Dominica, who refused all pleas to vote. "I don't want Bush to win," he said. "But I'm not into voting. The system is crazy. Bush is going to win." Down the street, 75-year-old June Knutsen was slightly more receptive. "If I do vote, I'll vote for Kerry." She signed up for an absentee ballot, but it may take more visits to make sure that ballot is cast. Likewise for Derrick Hahn, a 19-year-old nonunion construction laborer who succinctly explained his job: "I get paid dirt for hard work." He hadn't followed the election or any issues closely and had no interest in voting. "I don't really like either of these guys," he said. "I probably ain't going to vote." What kind of candidate would he like? "Maybe a guy out to help the lower class more," he said. Who would help the lower class more, Kerry or Bush? He paused and thought. "Kerry," he said finally, "more than Bush." Then he asked for an absentee ballot application.

On both sides, the campaigns and their supporting groups report more volunteers and a sense of optimism. "The race in Iowa is going to be very close, but we're confident we'll take it for the president," said Bush Iowa campaign spokesman Dan Ronayne. "We're working harder than ever. But Iowans are more in line with Bush's values. Kerry is out of the mainstream, a liberal tax-and-spend politician from the East Coast. They can't risk the safety of their families with him. The economy is doing better, and they'd rather keep more of their paycheck." "We're doing much the same operation we do every two years to get out the vote," Republican Party co-chairman Frazer said. "Our GOTV operation has been in place for some time." They'll have a bank of 50 phones for Election Day in Davenport, backed up by door-to-door precinct workers.

But the pro-Kerry operation's final push is likely to be much larger than its predecessor four years ago and larger than the Republicans' effort. The unions in Davenport alone will have 300 volunteers on the phone or walking door to door.

Meanwhile, ACT is taking a daring gamble. Although it has focused this fall on contacting Democrats in cities who voted once or less in the past three general elections and urging them to vote early, the group is turning its get-out-the-vote efforts "upside down," according to Jeff Link, ACT's state director and former Iowa campaign manager for Gore and Sen. Tom Harkin. Instead of concentrating on door-to-door contacts in the cities, it has recruited 700 volunteers to go to 195 small towns and reach out to rural voters, including many elderly residents, whom Democrats often neglect. "We've never done anything like this," Link said. "The way we'll make a marginal difference is to go where people have never gone before and where people have never knocked on doors."

The stakes are high in Iowa for the two candidates, but many Iowans feel that their own lives and the future of the country are on the line as well. Outside the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo, a venue named for five brothers killed in the same Pacific naval battle in World War II, Bryon Sells had parked his rusty, light-blue pickup truck in full view of everyone coming to hear Kerry speak on national security issues. On the back and sides were large, carefully painted signs bearing Sells' message. The words "The Son of a Bush keeps getting our kids murdered in Iraq -- no rich kids -- and in your heart you know it's wrong" are part of a long attack on the war and corporate profiteering. There's a tribute to Kerry (a "true American hero") and an attack on Dick Cheney (the "biggest crook in the world"). One recent addition: "The Son of a Bush and His Swiftboat Gutter Rat Cronies Must Eat out of a Toilet For All the Bull---- They Put Out."

A retired factory worker, now wealthy with the proceeds from the sale of his father's farm, Sells is a soft-spoken man with short gray hair who wears a Fillet and Release Club sweat shirt with a picture of a fish skeleton. "I tell you, the last four years the working class of people have been going down the drain," he said. "I'm retired. I've got a ton of money. But I feel for the working class." His son works at the factory where he worked, even though most of the jobs have been shipped to China. (Some are now coming back because of quality problems with the imports.) "I'm worried for the kids," Sells continued. "I've had a good life, but I'm worried to death about these young people coming up. Bush is strictly for the rich. It's a split country. Everyone can see it."

But didn't he want to benefit from Bush's cuts in estate and income taxes? "Absolutely not," he said. "I'm not that way. Neither are my brothers. We're all here to help. That's what we're here for. Not to rob each other. This is just a big money-power grab. If Bush gets away with, I don't know what we'll do. I've never been worried about a president before. But he tells so many lies."

Sells' voice then choked up as he fought back tears. After a pause, he said quietly, with a weak smile, "I think we'll make it." Across the street, a group of United Auto Workers members held up a banner: "Help Is on the Way."

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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2004 Elections