Caucus Anxiety in Iowa: Looking Out for Number One

As the dates for the first presidential campaign contests settle down, the state that traditionally goes first worries that others may usurp that spot

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Republican presidential candidate Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann delivers a speech at Iowa State University on Aug.13, 2011 in Ames, Iowa, before winning the Iowa Straw Poll.

Attempting to inject some order into the suddenly chaotic Republican presidential nominating process, the Iowa GOP this week set a Jan. 3 date for the Iowa caucuses. But the move also refuels the worst fear of some Iowans: that they could lose their much-cherished, highly-coveted, first-in-the-nation presidential contest because New Hampshire is threatening to schedule an unheard-of December primary.

“We don’t pick the party’s nominee but we do winnow the field,” says Donna R. Hoffman, a University of Northern Iowa politics professor. “We make you look voters in the eye, go to the little towns and have pie, answer regular peoples’ questions. We make candidates do retail politics. Iowans are proud of that and the Iowans active in this process take it very seriously.” She adds, “To not have that position makes Iowa not-so-special and everybody likes to be special. That’s why all these states are clamoring to be first.”

The threat to the traditional one-two Iowa-New Hampshire lineup began last month when Florida pushed its primary to Jan. 31 from March 6, leaping over the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, originally scheduled in February. South Carolina and Nevada then moved their contests up a month to January. And last week, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State Bill Gardner threatened to schedule his state’s primary on Dec. 6 or Dec. 13 if Nevada doesn’t push its Jan. 14 contest back at least three days. (Nevada faces another threat: It may be penalized by the Republican National Committee for moving its date up with the loss of delegates to the national convention.)

Despite the lingering uncertainty, the general feeling in Iowa–among political observers and party faithful–is that things will work out again for Iowa and New Hampshire; that GOP officials in both states are working furiously to preserve their positions; that the renegade states will fall in line rather than face penalties from the national party. “New Hampshire and Iowa have always had a tag-team approach in fending off other states’ attempts to increase their influence,” says Dennis J. Goldford, a Drake University politics professor . “My gut sense is they’ll work it out for January.” He adds, “What Iowa did by setting Jan. 3 was an attempt to stop the madness. That was a service to the Republican party” to help a clear candidate against Obama to emerge. Furthermore, he says, “Nobody here wants [the caucuses] to be any time in December.”

If Iowa doesn’t go first, Goldford adds, politically-engaged Iowans will feel the pain. “For those of us who are interested, the week leading up to the caucuses, it’s like being a kid at the carnival,” he says. “The interest in politics, the media, the candidates. It’s great. If that were to decline, this particular sliver would be very disappointed.”

Among that politically-engaged “sliver” of Iowa Republicans, there is confidence that all will end well but also an undercurrent of concern. Judy Davidson, of Bettendorf, expects a “friendly agreement” between New Hampshire and Iowa leaders, but adds, “I’m anxious to find out what will transpire with their date. I certainly hope that we maintain our first-in-the-nation status.” Is she prepared not to be first? “Of course not,” responds Davidson, who is also the Scott County GOP chair.

Bob Anderson, the Johnson County GOP chair, predicts “that New Hampshire will pick a date which will be something after Iowa. And Nevada and Florida will come into line after.” But he adds, “When the New Hampshire Secretary of State actually puts down his date, everybody will feel even better.”

Steve Armstrong has seen the date change before. The 2008 caucuses moved up to January 3. “We’ve always had something up in the air, usually not quite this late,” says Armstrong, chair of the Linn County GOP. “Our view is: This is the date we think it’s going to be. We’re going to be ready for anything.” Steve Scheffler, a member of the Iowa GOP’s central committee, defends the traditional nominating calendar. “It gives every candidate the time and ability to convey their message,” he says. But a “congested” schedule” is not a good way to vet a presidential candidate” because it hampers grassroots campaigning and favors the best-financed.

Like other Iowans, he is furious with Florida. “[It] caused this debacle. It broke the rules,” says Scheffler, who is a Republican National Committee member. “We have to impose, in the future, severe penalties on states that do this. Otherwise it just becomes a joke.”

On the caucus-organizing front, the Iowa GOP’s decision to set a firm date has helped ease–if not erase–anxiety, especially among the foot soldiers planning caucus sites at schools, libraries, and churches across Iowa. Not knowing the Iowa date was “a real imposition on our county leadership,” says Scheffler, and “unfair to our presidential candidates because… they have no idea where to allocate resources and staff.”

Also anxious were people in Iowa’s hospitality tourism industry who must plan for an onslaught of national and international visitors. Although the caucuses are great for business, “we’re somewhat held hostage by the entire process,” says Terry McLain, general manager of the Des Moines Marriott. With a date finally set, “it’s time to get things in motion,” says Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, which estimates the metro area reaped a $25 million economic impact from the 2008 caucuses. “The still big question is what is New Hampshire going to do? We’ll see.”