As the state of Iowa gears up for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary event, the Iowa Caucuses on January 3rd, 2011, Welton broadcasts from Des Moines.

We get the lowdown on the caucus process with Political Science Professor Dennis J. Goldford of Drake University, co-author of the book The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, with a look at how the state became so influential, and what is likely to contribute to the outcome of this year’s GOP caucuses.


RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Professor Dennis J. Goldford, Drake University

[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome Back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.

I always like to plan ahead, so it’s great to be able to tell you that early next year, we’ll be talking to Political Science Professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University. It’s easy to predict that: Professor Goldford’s new book, The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics, and the First Amendment, comes out in March, and you know we’ll want to discuss it! I just wish it was that easy to predict the outcome of January’s Iowa caucuses…

But Dennis Goldford is also co-author of the book The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, now in its third edition, and that’s the reason we asked him to join us in the studio here today in Des Moines.  Professor Goldford, welcome to State of Belief Radio!

[DENNIS J. GOLDFORD, GUEST]: It’s a pleasure.

[WG]: I was at breakfast yesterday morning, after arriving in Iowa, I was overhearing a conversation at the booth next to me, and it was a diverse group of people and they were talking about Iowa football, Iowa basketball and the Iowa caucuses, so I knew that I was right back where I wanted to be, and I’m glad you are here to talk with us about the caucuses.

There is so much national attention on Iowa right now, but honestly, so much of the coverage is pretty simplistic and conventional wisdom-driven. “It’s a rural conservative state; people are likely to have some issues supporting a Mormon candidate…” Beyond that, it’s mostly just day-to-day horse-race type reporting, by and large, not a lot of insight or analysis in that. What don’t people know about the Iowa caucuses that you think we should know?

[DG]: I would say two things. First of all, the Iowa caucuses, don’t pick the president. What the Iowa caucuses do, essentially, is winnow the field. They give candidates a chance to put that racecar – in other words, their candidacies and their campaigns – that racecar they’ve built out on the track and send it around for a test drive, and see what works, and see what doesn’t.

The second thing we should know about the Iowa caucuses is connected with this idea of the racecar metaphor, and that’s that the Iowa caucuses themselves don’t directly pick delegates to the national conventions; what the Iowa caucuses are about, actually, is bragging rights: who comes in first amidst the whole gaggle of candidates.

[WG]: There is, though, a connection, is there not, between what happens in Iowa and what happens, say, in New Hampshire?

[DG]: Well, people sometimes talk about a bounce from Iowa. But, for example, last time Mike Huckabee won the Republican caucuses, and went on to lose the New Hampshire caucuses to John McCain. So it varies. Sometimes there’s a bounce, and sometimes there is not.

[WG]: How engaged are most of the people in Iowa in the caucus process?

[DG]: A lot less than they are engaged in the fates of the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa Cyclones. You have to remember that Iowa is a state of 3 million; so in that sense we are smaller than the city of Los Angeles, and about, maybe, a third of the size of the city of New York, something like that. There are about 1.9 million voters in Iowa. Now, the largest group of voters are Independents, and they’re about 36% of registered voters. They can’t participate in the caucuses unless they re-register as a member of that particular political party. So you don’t have huge numbers of people who are independents doing that. Iowa Democrats are about 33% of registered voters, and Republicans are about 31% of registered voters. But in 2008, for example, it was a discouraging year for Republicans, but 119,000 Republicans participated in their caucuses. That was a little less than 20% of overall Republican registration in the state. So, the Democrats had a big turnout then, but still, on average, maybe only about 20% of eligible voters turn out for the caucuses.

[WG]: Well, I want to ask, is this the best way to do this? But listening to you I guess I want to ask more: why do this?

[DG]: It’s all Jimmy Carter’s fault. In other words, nobody paid much attention to the Iowa caucuses. They occur every two years for internal inside-baseball party purposes. But the Carter people noticed that, in 1972, somebody in the Democratic side had the bright idea of saying: “While we’re here doing party business, what do you think of our presidential nominees?” And lo and behold, George McGovern’s name popped up, when Edmund Muskie was the front-runner, supposedly; and the Carter people noticed that, and after he left office in January of 1975, he essentially camped out here for 15 or 14 months, and he won the caucuses – although he finished significantly behind “no preference,” that’s who really won the caucuses. But he went on to the White House, and people noticed that. And then, in 1980, Teddy Kennedy challenged Carter in Iowa; and George H. W. Bush challenged Ronald Regan as the frontrunner for the Republicans. So that cemented the role of the caucuses as the first-in-the-nation weathervane, if you will, giving the public some information about what voters thought about their candidates.

[WG]: From Des Moines, Iowa, I’m Welton Gaddy. You’re listening to State of Belief Radio. I’m talking with Professor Dennis Goldford, co-author of the book The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event.

Professor Goldford, the Iowa caucuses are January 3rd. There was a whole flurry of competition as several of the primary states competed to go earlier. Is that really important?

[DG]: No rational person would design this nomination system. But it’s just what’s grown up over time, particularly since 1972, when we determined presidential nominees, increasingly, through delegates selected at primaries, as opposed to shuffling and exchanging delegates at the national conventions in the old days of Huntley-Brinkley, if you remember those sorts of things. But Iowa is not first because its important; Iowa is important because it’s first. In any serial nomination process, whichever state gets to go first has an outsized impact. Now, the other states don’t like that, and we’ve seen them jostle – this year, it was Florida that made the biggest issue of it, 2008 it was Michigan and Florida that made the biggest issue of it; but all the states can decry the place of Iowa and say that we should have a more balanced nomination system, but until they agree, unanimously, on an alternative, Iowa remains in its position by default.

[WG]: Just as an outsider who very well could be wrong, it strikes me that this presidential election cycle has been a little bit different in Iowa, at least up until now. What’s been different? Is it something in-state, or is it how the Republican candidates have handled campaigning here, or is it little bit of both?

[DG]: Little bit of both. I mean, one thing we have to remember was that 2007-2008 was a crush. I mean, if you bent down to tie your loose shoelace, a candidate would probably beat you to it, wherever you are in the state. And we only have one party having a caucus that’s meaningful this year. The Democrats don’t have a challenger for president Obama. So it’s really the Republican Party that’s the caucusers this time, so there are fewer people there. But the other element of it that’s a bit different is that you really do have – it’s not a Great Canyon rift – but you really do have two wings of the party. One is the more traditional corporate, country club, establishment Republican type, and Mitt Romney certainly fits that bill. The other is the more angry, populist, evangelical and Tea Party type of voter, what some people would call the “Teavangelical” wing of the party, and they, their candidates – or the ones who want to be their candidates – certainly are Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, people like that. So the fight in Iowa has been essentially over, not between Romney and everybody else equally, it’s among everybody else to see who would emerge as the un-Romney or the anti-Mitt.

[WG]: Is this system, the caucus system, especially vulnerable to particular agendas? I mean, one of the things that makes me ask that question is national pressure groups have begun to work a lot through local state pressure groups and initiatives, such as on marriage equality, the marriage equality fight right here in Iowa. So are there, kind of, backdoor ways that you see out of state interest trying to manipulate this process?

[DG]: “Manipulate” might be too strong of a word, but you certainly have national groups of various sorts with an interest in what happens here. We have to remember that while evangelicals in Iowa may be around 25% of the population overall, before 2008 they were 40% of caucus attenders. This began, really, with the Robertson surprise in 1988, when he finished second, coming from nowhere. In 2008 conservative evangelicals identified themselves at least as such, where 60% of caucus-goers in 2008, that was the Huckabee phenomenon, of course. And so again, Santorum, Bachmann – they’re trying to be Huckabee 2.0; and that makes the social issues much more predominant. While people are worried about the economy, but among Iowa Republicans, those social issues are particularly important: overwhelmingly, the issue of same-sex marriage, and then, certainly, abortion.

[WG]: So, in reality, looking at what comes out of the Iowa caucuses is not necessarily a picture of what to expect in the upcoming primaries?

[DG]: That’s right. I mean, that’s the concern of a lot of states: that Iowa is not very representative of the nation as a whole; Iowa Republicans more or less track the concerns of Republicans nationwide, but their concern about social issues is greater than the average nationwide. Iowa Democrats’ concerns tend to track those of Democrats nationwide, but that’s been precisely one of the issues: how representative is Iowa. How meaningful is the result in Iowa? If Iowa Republicans were to pick someone as their preference that really doesn’t have much of a chance of getting the nomination, let alone winning the presidency, you know, other states may simply decide to discount what the Iowa caucuses do.

[WG]: Last week, CNN reported that there has been a secret meeting of conservative evangelical leaders in Iowa, hatching a plan to ensure that Mitt Romney does not do well. The report indicated a second meeting was to take place this past Monday. Do you know anything about this, or what are your thoughts on this?

[DG]: Wel,l there is talk about this – I’m not privy to any insight information there – but certainly Romney is not someone trusted by conservative evangelicals. They believe either he is not truly a conservative, that he is a moderate or a liberal – particularly on social issues – or they believe you can’t tell what he is because he’s all over the map. Either way, for people who get into politics because of a particular religious agenda, first principles and values are important, and they don’t tolerate heresy very well, be it political heresy or any other kind, so they don’t trust Mitt Romney. That’s why the fight among Republicans is to find the un-Romney.

[WG]: Polls might be fun to watch, but especially in this campaign season, they’ve certainly not offered any consistency. From your perspective, who among the GOP candidates do you think is best positioned, ultimately, to attract the most Iowans – and let me say that I ask that with the caveat that a regular guest of ours on this show, a Professor of Political Science in Washington, DC, confidently predicted that Chris Christie would enter the race, take a leading position among the candidates… So we’re not going to hold you to your prediction, but what do you see coming in the caucuses?

[DG]: I always say, if I felt I could predict, I’d be at the race track instead of doing this, because it would be more lucrative. But I think that, you know, Rick Santorum has done the traditional Iowa caucus playbook; he’s gone to every one of the 99 counties, he’s seen people, he’s talked to people – but he’s still down there in the single digits. I mean, he could over-perform expectations by doubling his position, but he’d still be in single digits. It’s a question of the heart vs. the head. I mean, with your heart you want a candidate who expresses your views, and expresses your values, and articulates your anger and rage and frustration; but when you think with your head, it’s: ok, who can best win the presidency? And sometimes those conflict with each other. But as we look at what these various folks are going to do, what I like to say is that they all have the same opponent, and that opponent’s name is “expected.” Do they do better than expected or do they do worse than expected? And if they do worse than expected in the caucuses, the money, the contributions drop, the press drops, they start a downward spiral, almost, they can reverse that, but it’s really hard. If they do better than expected, all of a sudden they get the attention, they get increased contributions – and it spirals upward. That certainly happened to Mike Huckabee last time, who came out of nowhere, but of course, he didn’t go on to win the nomination. So, the problem for religious conservatives in the state is they haven’t unified by behind a particular candidate yet. A lot like Newt Gingrich, but still – there are a lot of others who say because they think you can compete on a stage with Barack Obama – a lot of others still say they can’t forgive him for the baggage he carries, certainly in the moral area.

[WG]: Most of the people who watch television, politics,, day in and day out, are interested in our show, and so most of the people who listen to our show are going to be watching what happens with the Iowa caucuses. As they tune in on January 3rd to do that, tell us what should we look for; what are the tip-offs, what are good insights that we should anticipate?

[DG]: Well, first is, as I mentioned, look and see who seems to be over-performing expectations. That will show you where the passion is, at least among Republican activists in Iowa. The question is, as you suggested earlier, whether Republican activists of Iowa are representative of Republicans nationwide. But the other point of interest, at least that I’ll be looking for, is: how high is turnout? Because I would expect that with Republicans feeling, this year especially – after the 2010 elections, that they have the wind at their back, and it’s going to be their year in 2012 to take back the Presidency – I would think turnout would go up substantially. And a week or so ago I saw a quote from a longtime Republican activist in the state, suggesting the turnout might be lower than the last time. That astounds me. If it occurs, that suggests the Republicans really aren’t very happy with the field as they look at them. And I’ve had many Republicans say, “Is this the best we’ve got?” as they look at the various candidates.

[WG]: So what are the numbers that – you’ve said usually 20% turn out for the caucuses – so what number would you be looking for to make your decision, is this a sign of interest or disinterest?

[DG]: Well, last time about 240,000 Democrats turned out. That was about 40%, a little less, of Democratic registration. I don’t know that Republicans would get up into that kind of range. But I would think if about 20% turned out last year, really, anything less than 25% of registered Republican voters I would see as simply a vote of no confidence, or at least a vote of indecision, in their field of candidates.

[WG]: Dennis Goldford is Professor of Political Science at Drake University; he’s the co-author of the book The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of A Media Event, now in its third edition – a book I’m eager to get my hands on again. And I’m also eager to get my hands on your new book, because it’s of such of interest to those of us at the Interfaith Alliance and to people who are interested in this show. His new book is called The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics, and the First Amendment, coming out in March 2012, so you can just anticipate that sometime in the future, Professor Goldford will be with us again to talk about that book.

If you do as well and articulate as well in that book as you have your first one and on this show, we’re in for a treat then, even as we’ve had a treat today. Professor Goldford, thank you so much for taking time to be with us on State of Belief Radio.

[DG]: It’s been a great pleasure.

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