DES MOINES — Four years ago, Iowa was awash in presidential candidates crisscrossing the state. Campaign headquarters were packed with staffers and volunteers. The airwaves were clogged with political commercials. Excitement was palpable. Today, everything seems different.
Iowa still holds its coveted position as the state whose caucuses will mark the opening of the Republican presidential nomination process. What happens here Jan. 3 will still have a major impact on the Republican race. But at least for this presidential cycle, Iowa has lost much of the unique character that has marked previous campaigns.
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Candidates are spending less time and money here. They have held fewer events, and those events (with a few exceptions) draw smaller audiences and generate less excitement than in the past. Campaign organizing is months behind the pace of the past several cycles. Advertising has only just begun in earnest.
In past elections, Iowa voters often saw things before voters elsewhere — because they had an early opportunity to examine the candidates repeatedly and close up. They discovered Jimmy Carter in 1976 when he was unknown. They launched President Obama in 2008 when Hillary Rodham Clinton was ahead in the national polls. They saw Mike Huckabee’s potential four years ago earlier than voters elsewhere.
This year they are moving less independently. As Republican voters have shifted nationally, Iowa voters have changed with them, from Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to businessman Herman Cain and now to former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “There’s much more of a national presence and much less of a local footprint in the state,” said J. Ann Selzer, an Iowa-based pollster.
Saturday’s Republican debate in Des Moines began a three-week sprint to the finish in Iowa, and the pace is beginning to quicken. Republicans will debate again Thursday night in Sioux City. Candidates are promising to be back here often before Jan. 3. But the anticipated activity only serves to draw attention to how dissimilar this campaign has been to date from those in the recent past.
“We have this different dynamic with the debates, cable covering the campaign wall to wall, the Internet, [newspapers] updating throughout the day, blogs, tweets, everything going on,” said Dave Oman, a veteran Republican activist who is backing Mitt Romney this year. “So it wouldn’t surprise me that we are responding to all of what’s going on and communicating it similar to the rest of the country.”
What’s not clear is whether this year’s campaign in Iowa is an anomaly or a look into the future. That’s part of the discussion among politically active people in the state this fall. A few weeks ago, Gov. Terry Branstad upbraided Romney for not spending enough time here. Is he worried that the absence of activity will diminish Iowa’s role in the future?
“We always worry about that,” Branstad said with a laugh. “It’s one of those things. We worry about that just like we worry about the price of corn. Right now the price of corn is real good but we always worry that it’s not going to stay there.”