Presidential Race
5:48 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

As Caucuses Loom, Iowans Bemoan Lack of Face Time

Originally published on Tue December 13, 2011 10:38 pm

The Iowa caucuses — the first contest of the 2012 presidential nominating season — take place in three weeks. That means there's precious little time for candidates to make their case and close the deal with Hawkeye State Republicans.

But candidates were tough to find in Iowa on Tuesday. Only former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — a big underdog in the race — was there. In fact, many Iowans note that this year candidates have spent fewer hours in the state than before recent presidential caucuses.

There are places across Iowa where you just know candidates are going to pass through to shake hands and make an impression, like the Baby Boomers restaurant near the state capitol in Des Moines. Owner Rodney Maxfield says the candidates are still dropping in, but not as often.

"I'm assuming that it's going to get bigger, but it's definitely slower," Maxfield says.

Seated at the counter finishing his coffee, Josh Seddon, 30, says he'll participate in the caucuses, but he describes his involvement so far as "not hot and heavy yet."

"It may have something to do with [the fact that] the candidates usually are in and out of the city quite a bit more," he says. But he quickly adds there's still time to get up to speed on who's who.

Already A Familiar Face?

Two of the GOP's leading candidates are least likely to be found in Iowa this year: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Darrell Kearney, 70, a local Republican Party official, remembers that Romney was in the state a lot in 2007 and 2008 and says Gingrich has been here a lot over the years.

"I first met Gingrich in '88 when he was campaigning for Jack Kemp, so a lot of people know him and know Romney," says Kearney, who says he has met every presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Republican strategist John Stineman says one reason candidates are scarcer in Iowa this year is the need to raise money. The Gingrich campaign, for example, has huge debts to pay off even as it spends more.

"There's only so much money you raise in Iowa, and to be honest, it's not very much," Stineman says. "So you have to go somewhere to make sure that you're going to get the coffers full enough to buy the ads and fill the mailboxes the way you need to for your campaign."

More Debate Time, Less Face Time

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, says the unusually large number of televised debates also has changed dynamics.

"They've given all sorts of candidates the visibility and press coverage that they normally would get by being in Iowa with feet on the ground participating in the caucuses," he says. "We don't know yet whether this is the beginning of a long-term change in the significance of the Iowa caucuses."

At another Des Moines restaurant, Paul Levenworth, an independent who has registered Republican so he can go to the caucuses, says he recognizes that candidates also have to spend time in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which follow Iowa in voting.

"It's a national campaign, so they're involved someplace and they certainly have a presence in Iowa whether it is television, whether it's the multiple phone calls we get at dinnertime every night from various candidates, or polling people," he says.

Still, voter Desda Saunders says she hopes all of this isn't a sign that the Iowa caucuses are losing their clout.

"I think it's kind of sad because Iowa enjoys that, and likes to be a big player in the whole process of [nominating] candidates," Saunders says.

The candidates will be stepping things up in person in Iowa later this week, as there's a debate in Sioux City Thursday night. And even if it comes late, the days between Christmas and Jan. 3 are still likely to feel just like caucuses past.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The first contest of the presidential nominating season takes place exactly three weeks from tonight, the Iowa caucuses. That means there's precious little time remaining for candidates to make their case in Iowa. But the state has been feeling a bit lonely this campaign season. Today, only Rick Santorum, an underdog, was visiting the state. And overall this year, candidates have spent less time in Iowa than in past presidential campaigns. NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea explores why.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There are places across Iowa where you just know candidates are going to pass through to shake hands and to make an impression. Like Baby Boomers restaurant near the state capitol in Des Moines. Owner Rodney Maxfield says the candidates are still dropping in, but...

RODNEY MAXFIELD: It's definitely been a lot slower. I'm assuming that it's going to get bigger, but it's definitely slower.

GONYEA: Yesterday and today, three weeks away, there's one candidate in the state, Rick Santorum. Does that surprise you?

MAXFIELD: Yes. I think they all should be here.

GONYEA: Seated at the counter finishing his coffee is 30-year-old Josh Seddon. He says he'll participate in the caucuses, but described his level of involvement this way.

JOSH SEDDON: Not hot and heavy yet. I haven't really gotten into it yet. And it may have something to do with candidates usually are in and out of the city quite a bit more.

GONYEA: But he quickly adds there's still plenty of time to get up to speed on who's who. Also here is 70-year-old Darrell Kearney, a local Republican Party official, who's proud to say that he was a youth coordinator for Barry Goldwater back in 1964.

DARRELL KEARNEY: I've met every presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

GONYEA: Two of this election's leading candidates are those least likely to be found in Iowa this year: former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Here's Kearney's take on that.

KEARNEY: Romney was here a lot in '07 and '08. Gingrich has been here a lot over the years. I mean, I first met Gingrich in '88 when he was campaigning for Jack Kemp. A lot of people know him and know Romney.

GONYEA: There's another reason for fewer Iowa appearances, says Republican strategist John Stineman, candidates need to raise money. The Gingrich campaign, for example, has huge debts to pay off even as it spends more.

JOHN STINEMAN: There's only so much money you raise in Iowa. And to be honest, there's not very much. So you have to go somewhere to make sure that you're going to get the coffers full enough to buy the ads and fill the mailbox the way you need to for your campaign.

GONYEA: At Drake University, political scientist Dennis Goldford says all those televised debates have also had an effect.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: They've given all sorts of candidates the visibility and press coverage that they normally would get by being in Iowa with feet on the ground participating in the caucuses. We don't know yet whether this is the beginning of a long-term change in the significance of the Iowa caucuses.

GONYEA: At a restaurant near campus, voter Paul Levenworth, an independent who has registered Republican so he can go to the caucuses, says he recognizes that candidates have to spend time in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

PAUL LEVENWORTH: It's a national campaign, so they're involved someplace. And they certainly have a presence in Iowa whether it is television, whether it's multiple phone calls we get at dinner time every night from various candidates or polling people.

GONYEA: Still, voter Desda Saunders says she hopes all of this isn't a sign that the Iowa caucuses are losing their clout.

DESDA SAUNDERS: I think it's kind of sad because Iowans enjoy that and likes to be a big player in the whole process of nominations of candidates.

GONYEA: The candidates will be stepping things up in person in Iowa later this week. There's a debate in Sioux City on Thursday night. And even if it comes late, the days between Christmas and January 3rd are still likely to feel just like caucuses past. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.