Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

James Zogby

What to look for in Iowa

After more than a year of non-stop campaigning the fate of America's 2008 presidential aspirants will be determined by 3 January caucus in Iowa and the 8 January New Hampshire primary, writes James Zogby*

For almost four decades Iowa and New Hampshire have opened the presidential selection process. Other states, resentful of the role they have accrued, have tried to move the dates of their own elections in order to reduce the influence of these two early states but in vain. The importance of Iowa and New Hampshire has only grown.

Because they are both small states, and because they are the first, to win in Iowa and New Hampshire candidates must engage in what is called "retail politics". They, and their campaign staff, must personally meet with small groups, hold gatherings in people's homes, engaging with voters, sometimes one at a time.

As a result the candidates have spent an extraordinary amount of time in each of the two early states, built sizable organisations, and spent large sums of money. The leading Democrats, for example, have spent almost three months out of the last year in Iowa, their leading Republican counterparts almost two months in Iowa. The Obama and Clinton campaigns have each hired 200 staff in Iowa, and spent a combined $15 million in advertising on local television.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who was virtually unknown in Iowa, has spent $7 million advertising in the state. This has boosted him into a leading position in the Republican contest.

Combined, Republicans and Democrats have now hired over 1,000 staff in Iowa and spent over $30 million in paid advertising. In New Hampshire the total is about two- thirds of this amount.

One impact of such saturation is that the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are more like local elections for statewide office, or even mayoral contests than they are a national poll. More than a third of voters in the two states report having met personally with candidates. This is what Iowans and New Hampshirites have come to expect: shaking candidates' hands, asking them tough questions, and sizing them up before they vote. As a result Iowa and New Hampshire's voters act like filters -- screening candidates who will best be able to compete on the national stage. The two states act as catapults, responding to strong campaigns and making them stronger.

Later in January some other states will hold early elections. For Democrats, Nevadans will caucus on 19 January and South Carolina will hold its primary on 26 January. For Republicans, Michigan will hold its primary on 15 January, South Carolina will vote on the 19th, and Florida on the 29th. Then, on 5 February, 20 states hold elections on a single day.

With this compressed schedule winning, or doing better than expected, in Iowa and New Hampshire can thrust candidates into the national spotlight. Those who do well in the early states generate substantial media attention of the kind money can't buy and which helps candidates raise the funds they need to compete in later states. Winning or doing well in the early states creates momentum for a campaign, inspires supporters and wins new support from voters in the later states. Recall, for example, how Jimmy Carter's victory in Iowa in 1976 launched his ultimately victorious campaign for the presidency.

Losing, or doing worse than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire, can suck the life from a campaign. Think here of Howard Dean in 2004: he was leading in the national polls, and was expected, early on, to win Iowa. A poor third place finish in Iowa's caucus, however, made him look like a loser while the first and second place finishers, John Kerry and John Edwards, were catapulted into the national eye.

So what should punters be looking for in Iowa on 3 January? Clinton, Obama and Edwards are locked in what appears to be a close contest. While Clinton and Obama have raised enough money to remain viable candidates through 5 February they must win or come a strong second in Iowa and New Hampshire to remain contenders. Should either of the two fail to win one of these early contests it could irreparably harm their campaigns.

Edwards must win Iowa, since he has banked on that state to launch his candidacy. Losing in Iowa will, for all intents and purposes, end his candidacy. Should any of the remaining candidates finish a strong third in Iowa, that better than expected performance could gain them the attention needed to compete in later states. Without such a boost, and short of funds, most will end their campaigns.

On the Republican side the picture is less clear. Mike Huckabee, like Edwards, has banked on an Iowa win. While Christian conservatives' displeasure with the rest of the field has pushed Huckabee's standing in Iowa and in the other early states, he must win in Iowa to generate the funds to remain competitive. Mitt Romney, who was the early leader in Iowa and New Hampshire, is counting on wins in these states to give him the national push needed to succeed on 5 February. He must win both Iowa and New Hampshire to remain viable.

John McCain, whose campaign was once thought finished, has been given a second chance by conservatives concerned with the weakness of the other candidates. Endorsements by Iowa's largest newspaper and The Boston Globe (widely read in New Hampshire) has given his candidacy new life. He must finish in the top three in Iowa and win in New Hampshire to relaunch his candidacy.

Most interesting is Rudolf Giuliani, who largely ignored Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, counting on a Florida win to start his campaign. If he finishes strong in Iowa or New Hampshire his strategy might work. If he places poorly in both states, however, and another Republican wins or places well, Giuliani's Florida strategy might backfire. And watch Ron Paul. He is the dark horse on the Republican side. He has raised enough money to be competitive and developed a fiercely loyal following. Finishing better than expected in the early states could keep Ron Paul in the race until the end.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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