“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Mark Twain, 1897
For over 50 years, Iowa has been the place where one or both of the two major political parties in the U.S. have held their first major contest of the presidential election season.
In the months that lead up to the February caucuses, candidates crisscross the state meeting voters in coffee shops, house parties, town halls, restaurants, parades, ice cream parlors, and anywhere else they can find a live Iowan. Voters get a chance to compare and contrast the candidates not based on TV ads or media coverage, but by listening to them in person.
They also get to question them directly. An Iowan I met last week at a Mike Pence event in the small town of Holstein (population: 1,501) told me she always “checks them all out if they’re willing to come out here. And the free lunch is nice too.”
Several times since 1972 Iowa’s time in the national election spotlight has been reported to be finished. In 1992, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s candidacy chased away all the other candidates on the Democratic side. In 2008, then-GOP frontrunner former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (yes, that Rudy Giuliani) decided to skip Iowa entirely. In 2012 (Republicans), and in 2020 (Democrats), vote counting on caucus night was a debacle. Finally, in 2023, national Democrats announced that South Carolina, not Iowa, would be their first contest of 2024.
But, like Mark Twain in 1897, the Iowa caucuses' death knell has always been exaggerated. Republicans are more than happy to keep Iowa first, and many candidates are actively seeking the GOP nomination and already blanketing the state.
The diverse list includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley; former Vice President Mike Pence; Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina; North Dakota Gov. Doug Borgum; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; and, of course, the ubiquitous Donald Trump.
The frontrunners are Trump and DeSantis, but the field is wide open for any candidate to catch fire, especially given Trump’s unprecedented legal challenges and Desantis’ early lackluster campaigning.
The lessons of Jimmy Carter, Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Pete Buttigieg are undeniable. You can enter Iowa a long-shot and exit a contender. And, some popular candidates lose their luster in Iowa.
One was Republican Fred Thompson in 2008. A highly regarded former senator and TV and movie actor, many voters were begging Thompson to run for president. He obliged, Iowa voters were unimpressed, and shortly after his dismal third-place Iowa finish, he left the race entirely. Other notable Iowa flameouts have been Republican Scott Walker in 2015 and Democrat Beto O’Rourke in 2019. And then there’s Howard Dean in 2008: He started as a long-shot, caught fire and became the frontrunner, then flamed out just in time for the Iowa caucuses.
I keep going back to Iowa every four years because early in the presidential selection process, amid the vast cornfields, two-lane highways, Pizza Ranches and oft-flooded rivers, optimism, unity and even civility waft through the air like blown dandelion seeds.
While there are obvious and notable exceptions, I’ve found that most presidential candidates appeal to the better angels of people, and, even if it’s for a brief few months, talk about what’s possible in this diverse, great and complicated country of ours.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Iowa caucuses still offer lessons on politics, GOP for U.S. and Kansas