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‘Not Your Grandmother’s Iowa Caucus:’ Historians Examine State’s Rise to Power

January 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown discusses the history and significance of the Iowa Caucuses with presidential historians Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University and Michael Beschloss, plus Jeff Stein of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we return to today’s official kickoff of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Jeffrey Brown takes a wider historical view.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, I’m joined by presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and with us from Iowa tonight, Jeff Stein, vice chair of the board of trustees for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Michael, I want to pick up on something both Judy and Gwen reminded us of. There’s a Democratic caucus tonight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: There is. There is.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s an incumbent president, a Democrat.

Now, what is the incumbent normally — what happens with the incumbent? They normally stay out of the action or fight for relevancy?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, probably the best example of a president actually gaining relevance was Richard Nixon running for reelection in 1972.

That was the first time there was a serious Iowa caucus, in which George McGovern did very well, and, of course, New Hampshire. But this stuff was almost wiped off the airwaves by Richard Nixon making the first visit of an American president to China.

So, in the evening, you think that people would be noticing Iowa and New Hampshire, McGovern doing very well. Instead, there was an hour special each evening on most of the networks for a week, you know, Richard Nixon at the Great wall, the Great Hall of the People. People were not thinking very much about domestic politics, thought a lot about Nixon.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m struck, Richard. Michael just said 1972, the first important Iowa caucus. We forget that this wasn’t around forever.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It seems that way already.


JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your thought on the incumbent now and then?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: Well, think of Jimmy Carter, who experienced the highs and the lows of Iowa, who, in many ways, is the man who defined the modern Iowa caucuses, coming out of nowhere with no money, no organization to speak of in 1976 to tap into the mood, post-Watergate mood for change.

But then, four years later as an incumbent facing a very tough challenge in his own party from the left, from Ted Kennedy, had approval ratings in the mid-30s. And then along came the Iranian hostage crisis, which allowed Carter to strike a statesmanlike pose. He actually gained by staying out of the partisan fray. And he came from behind and won convincingly. It really put him on the road to re-nomination in 1980.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jeff Stein, you’ve watched many of these things from Iowa. And we heard about the Obama administration’s — Obama campaign’s team out there. What are you seeing now compared to in the past?

JEFF STEIN, State Historical Society of Iowa: Well, not only is there the video evidence in the caucuses tonight for the Obama campaign, but they bought massive advertising space on the Des Moines Register’s website, the banner, both sides, left and right, a video ad, knowing that people are going to go to the website of the state’s largest newspaper.

So they’re definitely trying to inject themselves. But probably the best example in Iowa of an incumbent injecting themselves into a caucus was 1984. The Democrats were all deciding between Walter Mondale and John Glenn and Gary Hart. And Ronald Reagan showed up and did a live rally from Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines during the heart of the 6:00 news, taking all of the air out of the Democrats’ effort when the incumbent comes to Iowa.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Michael, another thing we just heard about earlier, and some context here, important differences in Iowa then and now — one is in money, right, how it’s spent, how much goes to television, how much is face-to-face campaigning.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, just to give you an idea, I was talking this afternoon to Jerry Rafshoon, who is now a great filmmaker, but did Jimmy Carter’s media in 1976.

He says they spent in Iowa — or they spent last than $100,000, which, you know, in current dollars, would be maybe about a 10th of what Mitt Romney’s campaign and super PAC have spent this time. And he also said, in those days, Iowans were much less sophisticated about TV because they hadn’t gone through it before.

And polls would find that they were saying great things about Carter, Navy, religion, tells the truth. And they would ask the people, you know, why do you think this? And they’d say, well, we saw these great documentaries on TV.

They didn’t realize that these were paid advertisements.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, what do you — do you see other changes?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Huge changes. This is not your grandmother’s Iowa caucus.

The field itself, you know, the voters will decide what they think about them qualitatively, but in terms of what they bring, the arguments that they’re making, this is a much less diverse field. You used to have, for example, typically a Main Street conservative.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the candidates themselves, less diversity?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Exactly, a pragmatist like, say, Bob Dole, who won twice in Iowa. Then you had economic conservatives like Jack Kemp or Steve Forbes who really influenced the debate with ideas like the flat tax. You had moderates, self-professed, like Lamar Alexander, or George H.W. Bush, who famously beat Ronald Reagan in 1980.

They’re gone. Basically, every person, with the exception of Ron Paul, in this field is trying to appeal to the social conservatives. It’s a much narrower range of debate itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeff Stein, does it feel that way to you there?

JEFF STEIN: Well, one thing to understand is that there are more registered independents in Iowa than either Democrats or Republicans.

And I think what you’re seeing in Iowa is a sense that the voters are just tired of either side. And so more and more of them are rushing to the middle. And so that means that, on the Democratic caucus, you’re going to have partisans who skew much further to the left of the spectrum, conversely, on the Republican side, those who skew much more toward the right of the spectrum.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jeff Stein, what about the money question that Michael Beschloss brought up, how it’s spent, how much goes into television advertising, for example?

JEFF STEIN: There has been about $6 million spent in television advertising in the last 50 to 60 days in the state of Iowa by candidates and their super PACs.

But the other thing to note is the use of the Internet. You can put a longer, much nastier ad on the Internet and really stir up your own base. And that has led to a further divisiveness within the candidates and the population of voters themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, you were on the program last week when we were talking about this why Iowa question, right, and how important is it? What about the results going forward? I mean, and has that changed and do you think that’s changed in terms of its impact?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I’m not sure. It is interesting.

We will see. Increasingly, Iowa has been about sending a message, rather than choosing a nominee or let alone a president.

JEFFREY BROWN: A message as in — you mean more than the person?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, if a Rick Santorum, for example, or a Ron Paul were to win tonight, as opposed to Mitt Romney, whose basic argument, as we have heard ad nauseam, is, I can win in the fall.

If winning in the fall is less important than asserting one’s faith, political and otherwise, in the spring, that tells you a lot about the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what do we think we can say or not say about Iowa’s impact now?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think the process has actually worked very well. You know, a number of candidates on the Republican side have seemed to flame out over bad debate performances, other weaknesses. But that’s what the process is supposed to do.

These people are being road-tested for the first time. Oftentimes, they look very different as candidates in a presidential campaign than they seemed to look before they ran.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jeff Stein, I know because you joined us in that conversation last week. I know you think it still has a lot of relevance.

But what do you look for tonight in terms of results that will tell you whether this has an impact going forward?

JEFF STEIN: Well, it’s going to have an impact going forward because it’s first. The question is, how do people interpret the results?

I do think that, if Ron Paul wins, it shows you a great dissatisfaction by the population, not anger, but dissatisfaction with the status quo. If Mitt Romney wins, then it does show that the modus operandi for the Republicans this time is to win and then worry about how to govern, not so much about ideology, but simply getting rid of an incumbent.

And the Republicans I talk to, that’s job one for them. And I think that’s why Romney, surprisingly, is doing as well in Iowa as he is.


Jeff Stein, Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, thanks a lot.