The Heartland Hustle

Who will win big at the Iowa caucuses? Those hometown Hawkeyes, of course

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Illustration by Lou Beach for TIME

Iowa's presidential-caucus season is off to a slow start, so Governor Terry Branstad let slip a blazing 100-decibel hog call when he announced that many Republican voters in his state were still up for grabs. "It's a wide-open race," he said. His real message to the GOP hopefuls, however, could not be clearer: Iowa is open for business, and you had better get here, starting right now.

To which I say, Candidates, grab your wallets.

Iowa's caucuses have been important in presidential politics since 1976, when the unknown Jimmy Carter used his second-place victory — "undecided" came in first — to jump-start his drive to the White House. Four years later, a little-known Republican named George H.W. Bush practically moved to Iowa for two years and won an early upset over Ronald Reagan.

It's easy to imagine that the Iowa caucuses are a grifter's delight. Slick-talking candidates from back East or down South invade Iowa like latter-day Harold Hills, with carpetbags full of brassy political promises instead of band instruments. They shake a few hands, devour a few corn dogs and lift a pile of votes from Iowa's honest and simple folk.

Candidates may go to Iowa thinking they are the sharpies, but in truth they are the marks. The canny Iowans lure in all sorts of hopefuls, who find themselves spending millions on television ads, motels, office space, rental cars and catering. With 99 counties, Iowa has a lot to organize, and of course, every county must have a local coordinator, field staff and a humble Main Street storefront. Candidates raise millions from smart money types in Washington and on Wall Street and pour it all into Ottumwa — where the real sharp operators are.

This heartland hustle works so well that Hillary Clinton dumped some $29 million into Iowa in 2008 and still lost. Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and the other candidates spent millions more. This is such a good angle that the Iowa GOP even created a lucrative second mini-caucus, called the Ames Straw Poll. In August, months before the caucuses themselves, 10,000 to 20,000 voters cram into a field house at Iowa State University to vote for their chosen candidate. This naturally requires a $30 ticket, all checks payable to the Republican Party of Iowa. Ames is sheer genius: it's an essentially phony contest that forces the candidates to start earlier, visit more often, book more hotel rooms and put more friendly Iowans on the payroll to organize the vast logistics of busing all those would-be voters to Ames. (In the early days, the straw poll was run more like the Bank of Madoff than the Bank of Solid Iowa Values. In 1995, I voted several times, chitchatting with consultants from rival campaigns as we washed the "I voted" stamps off our hands in the men's room. They say the rules are much tougher now, which I believe. Blatant fraud is bad for business in any casino.)

Iowans stoutly defend their caucus system as a grass-roots rarity, which it is. With amazing hospitality, excellent public schools, the nation's fairest redistricting and — as should now be quite clear — a very practical view on fiscal matters, Iowans have plenty to teach a candidate. That said, the actual connection between winning the caucuses and winning the nomination is quite spotty. The elder Bush, Bob Dole and Mike Huckabee all won the caucuses at various times and then lost the nomination.

That's chiefly because the caucuses weed out about half of Iowa's GOP-primary voters. Since voting in the caucuses involves slogging through a cold winter night in January or February to stand around in a high school gym or somebody's living room for a few hours, it attracts the intense and increasingly ideological voters who like their political meat served raw. And since the caucus vote is splintered among several candidates, as few as 40,000 votes are often enough to win. No wonder Michele Bachmann is out buying snowshoes.

Some candidates are getting wise to this racket. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have been keeping their distance from the state. Only former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has committed his calendar and checkbook, seeing a first- or second-place finish in Iowa as his best way to break through into the big time. But to thrive, Iowa Caucus Inc. needs many players, which helps explain Branstad's hog call.

All Iowa comers should remember this: Iowa isn't the only early state with a lucrative franchise to protect. Shortly after the Iowa winner is declared, the jungle drums of prickly New Hampshire start beating out their own home-state message: "Screw Iowa. We decide."