DES MOINES, Iowa -- Only in the past few days of the long 2012 presidential campaign has Iowa felt like the hotbed of presidential candidates that it prides itself on being.
For most of 2011, the race for the Republican presidential nomination was a national affair, taking place through debates and cable TV interviews. Gone was the intimate campaigning of candidates going from one Iowa living room or rotary club to the next.
Matt Strawn, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, isn't ready to declare the 2012 race the "new normal" for presidential politicking going forward, he told Yahoo News in an interview on Tuesday at the party's headquarters . He said he hopes this year's more subdued caucus campaign isn't a "death knell" for Iowans' right to quadrennially poke and prod the next chief executive of the United States.
"There's no question that it's been a different rhythm and pace than we had in Iowa four years ago," Strawn said.
"Clearly, having highly watched presidential debates have kind of driven a lot of the issues of the campaign," he added. "We've had campaigns that have been cash strapped, that haven't had the resources to build out those extensive field organizations that we've seen traditionally here in Iowa. So, some of that is the campaign by necessity given the lack of resources."
Strawn's job requires him to be neutral in the 2012 campaign, but he did note that two campaigns--Mitt Romney's and Ron Paul's--have been doing traditional organizing in the state for months.
"Throughout the summer and into the fall going around to a county picnic, fundraiser, you-name-it Republican Party event, I'd usually run into and look at the different campaigns," Strawn said. "Mitt Romney would usually have a field staffer there, but someone that was part of his paid operation. Usually, Ron Paul would have a local volunteer person there with a clipboard, signing people up. Those were the two campaigns probably with the most constant and significant presence."
Now six major presidential candidates are in Iowa, traversing the state in a mad dash to shake hands, firm up commitments from supporters, win over undecided voters, and try to set foot in as many of Iowa's 99 counties as possible.
I sat down with Strawn on Tuesday afternoon at his office here in Des Moines.
David Chalian: Your quote in Dan Balz's piece this morning in the Washington Post and what you are saying all over the place is, "Oh, it's so fluid. It's so fluid." Fine. That's interesting. But I actually want to know one layer deeper than that. Why? Why is it such a fluid race this time around?
Matt Strawn: Well, because the decision isn't being made in a vacuum. Iowa Republicans understand what four more years of an Obama administration means to the country. And they also understand the decision we make extends far beyond our borders here in Iowa so they want to get the decision right.
Chalian: Isn't that true every cycle that they want to get the decision right?
Strawn: Well, but more so. If you talk to an Iowa Republican right now and they'll tell you exactly what the stakes are for this race. And it's different. Four years ago you didn't have a comparison--why are we making this choice? Right now we understand the challenges America faces and a lot of those challenges lay at the failures of the Obama administration.
So you want somebody that, one, is going to aggressively prosecute the failures of the Obama administration and a failed liberal philosophy, but two, you want to make sure that the Republican standard bearer is also somebody that can articulate why our solutions, principles, are right for the country. So, I think that's the itch that the Iowa caucusgoer wants to scratch. They want to make sure we have someone that not only is articulating our principles, but could also beat Obama because we understand what the stakes are for the country.
And when I talk about how fluid it is, the comment I had in the paper this morning, that fluidity goes beyond just the top two or three which, go back four years ago, that was really the only drama -- what's the top two going to look like? Is it going to be Huckabee or Romney? Well, here you have the potential for six candidates to be potentially bunched up in the teens to the low 20s. You have half of Iowa caucusgoers who still can be persuaded to support another candidate by caucus night.
Chalian: And you believe that is still true today, seven days out, that half figure--that 50 percent still could be persuaded?
Strawn: Yeah, I think so. I think that number probably shrinks as the candidates are here in the flesh looking an Iowan in the eye and letting them ask a question. I think that's the best way to close a deal for those persuadable or undecided Iowans.
Chalian: Why do you think we've seen something different this cycle here in terms of the flesh pressing and the looking in the eyes and the visits down? What do you think that's about? Is that just modern communication? I don't quite understand why that rich part of the tradition where Iowans do take their role so seriously, they haven't had the opportunity to do so.
Strawn: I'm not prepared to call that the new normal yet. I think each caucus cycle, each campaign has its own set of issues that drive the debate and has its own rhythm and pace. And there's no question that it's been a different rhythm and pace than we had in Iowa four years ago.
Clearly, having highly watched presidential debates have kind of driven a lot of the issues of the campaign. We've had campaigns that have been cash strapped, that haven't had the resources to build out those extensive field organizations that we've seen traditionally here in Iowa. So, some of that is the campaign by necessity given the lack of resources.
I hope it is not a death knell for either the Iowa way or the New Hampshire way. This is one thing we fight for at the RNC and I know my early state colleagues on the DNC do as well. At a time when you have more and more Americans feel disconnected from Washington, you need places like Iowa and New Hampshire that encourage and almost demand candidates to be on the ground and let an everyday Iowan or Granite Stater look him in the eye and ask him a tough question because, if you don't, it's that slippery slope toward a national primary. And a national primary is nothing more than a fundraising contest and it greatly reduces the likelihood that you'll be able to have a dark horse come from the movement within either party.
Chalian: One of the buzzy lines of conventional wisdom out there right now is that Ron Paul is the one with a real organization here. How do you see that when you travel around the state? What does that look like this Ron Paul organization?
Strawn: As I assess any of these campaigns, I do so with the necessary caveat of the neutral chairman who's impartial because I oversee the election.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Throughout the summer and into the fall going around to a county picnic, fundraiser, you-name-it Republican Party event, I'd usually run into and look at the different campaigns. Mitt Romney would usually have a field staffer there, but someone that was part of his paid operation. Usually, Ron Paul would have a local volunteer person there with a clipboard, signing people up. Those were the two campaigns probably with the most constant and significant presence.
You know, I put Tim Pawlenty in that prior to the straw poll too, of course. And then a little bit later, Bachmann, Perry and Santorum caught up.
I think people that I hadn't recognized before, new to the process, just very committed. It's traditional grassroots organizing. Now, I think this goes for any candidate not just Ron Paul, but identifying and turning out people who haven't caucused before is usually a little bit heavier of a lift than those who are used to caucusing every four or eight years. So, time will tell. We'll find out in seven days.
Chalian: Did you read Barone today in the Wall Street Journal?
Strawn: I did. It's the quadrennial attack on the Hawkeye State.
Chalian: Let me read to you from it. "If I were running the Iowa Republican Party, I would be seeking to vastly increase the turnout at the Jan. 3 caucuses. After all, those who turn out can be recruited to help in future Iowa Republican campaigns. I would be especially interested in attracting new young voters; the median age of 2008 caucusgoers was nudging up toward 60."
Michael Barone is not the head of the Repulican Party of Iowa. You are. Are you doing that? Do you just leave turnout up to the campaigns or as the neutral party chair, do you have a role to increase turnout at the caucuses? And how do you do that?
Strawn: No. My job is to promote the caucus, to make sure everyone understands the rules for participation, but it's the job of the campaigns to turn out voters. Part of being impartial is--if I am viewed essentially using the party apparatus to reshape the electorate you open yourself up to being accused of trying to bring in this segment of the electorate to benefit candidate X at the expense of candidate Y.
And the one thing that the party, which oversees the caucus, has to be, above all, is impartial. Any candidate who comes here should expect a fair shake from the Republican Party of Iowa. And that's what I've been proud we've been able to do that whether it was the straw poll or co-hosting three debates this cycle.
I will not be casting a vote myself caucus night. I will attend my local caucus. I will check in. Because my office oversees the election, I won't cast a ballot.
Chalian: It's a secret ballot, though.
Strawn: We have to remove any appearance of impropriety, though. And I just want to make sure that the results and the way we conduct are affairs, that there's no question about it.
I am confident with the outreach effort of the campaigns that we will be growing the party through the caucus process.
Chalian: But, if you underperform the 119,000 who turned out in 2008 or you just meet that turnout, that is not your fault? You take no heat for that?
Strawn: I'm not going to speculate on what the number may be. I'm going to let Iowans show up to vote.
Chalian: But that's not a concern of yours that you want to see more people show up?
Strawn: As the Republican Party of Iowa chairman, I'd love for more Iowans to identify with our party's principles and beliefs and find a candidate that they believe in among those running on the Republican side and register as Republicans and stay active throughout next year. I'd love to be able to use the Obama model against them here in Iowa in 2012. They were able to take a very robust caucus campaign and turn it into a general election machine.
And I'm hoping with some of the energy and enthusiasm we have starting on Jan. 4 we'll be able to do that.
Chalian: Do you expect to see a different electorate? Will it look different in size, shape, and scope?
Strawn: Yes. I think the potential is there. One data point that I use is that there are a lot more Republicans today in Iowa than there were four years ago. We've had 33 straight months of Republican voter registration gains here in Iowa. And if you were someone who was motivated to become a Republican over the last two years, logic would dictate that you are going to be motivated enough to go to your caucus.
The straw poll in Ames. We did not have Romney, Gingrich, nor Rick Perry aggressively participating there in any substantive function, yet we still had the second largest turnout ever including the highest turnout ever of organic people who came of their own accord and weren't driven there.
Chalian: You think you may see more younger voters at the caucuses?
Strawn: I think so. You think of what age demographic, rightfully, can be frustrated with what's happening in the country. When you have folks graduating from college and not being able to find that first job or folks that are two, three years out of college bumping around working a couple of different jobs trying to figure out how to pay the student loans back because they can't find that full-time gig. There's a lot of frustration out there here in Iowa, even a place that is still doing well relative to the rest of the country.
Chalian: You don't have to tell me, but do you think you know right now what the results will be? Do you think you'd have your order right?
Chalian: You remain open to being surprised this week?
Strawn: Iowans, that's what they do. We're independent by nature too. We want to make up our own minds and many of those minds might not get made up until about 7:05 p.m. on Jan. 3.
David Chalian is the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News.
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