Presidential candidates have been known to do many uniquely-Iowa things in hopes of a strong showing in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Visiting the Iowa State Fair's butter cow and dropping in on the ice cream capital of the world are two traditional musts. So is paying up to $100,00 for a list of previous caucus-goers.
All told, the Democratic presidential candidates have paid more than a half million dollars to the Iowa Democratic Party for the use of its coveted register of past caucus voters. Turnout for the January caucuses is notoriously low, and the list, made available on a sliding price scale, provides a quick way to locate near-definite caucus-goers among the nearly three million residents of the Hawkeye State.
But in a state where personal attention is critical to ensuring support on caucus night, does using the list leave too many voters out of the loop?
In 2004, the state hadn't seen a competitive Democratic caucus since 1992. As a result, the 2004 National Election Pool entrance poll showed that 55 percent of those interviewed on-site as the caucuses began had never attended one before.
In last week's Washington Post-ABC News survey of Iowans likely to attend the 2008 Democratic caucus, a smaller, but still significant, portion of likely voters are first-timers: 31 percent of respondents said these caucuses would be their first. So far, probably because they're not on the lists purchased by the current campaigns, these voters are less likely than previous attendees to have been contacted by any of the campaigns, just 52 percent have been called by any of the eight Democrats in the race compared with eight in 10 previous caucus attendees.
Despite a lower-level of contact, these first-timers are just as likely as caucus veterans to say they are following the 2008 campaign "very closely," but are less likely to say they are absolutely certain to attend in January. About a third are that committed while 66 percent say they "will probably attend."
As one might expect, new caucus-goers are younger than those who have already attended a caucus. More than a third are under age 30. They are also more likely to be independents than those who have gone before: 31 percent call themselves independents.
Although first-time attendees in 2004 split their caucus-night support in about the same way as more experienced voters, the Post-ABC poll suggests that this year may be different.
Both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama do marginally better among those new to the caucus than among those who have been before. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and former senator John Edwards do slightly worse.
These new caucus attendees attribute slightly different qualities to each of the top candidates than do others. They are more likely to see Obama as the strongest leader and Clinton as most sympathetic to their problems and are less likely to feel that Edwards is closest to them on the issues.