Ghosts of an Iowa Caucus Past

Three days from now the 2008 presidential campaign will officially begin with the first in the nation Iowa caucuses. I have no idea who will win in Iowa in either party this year. However, I do know something about what goes on there.

Twenty years ago I spent much of the month of January helping former Congressman Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., campaign in Iowa (the caucuses were later then.)

Gephardt had asked each one of his Congressional colleagues who were supporting his presidential bid to take responsibility for one of Iowa’s 99 counties that year. Since I didn’t know a great deal about agriculture, I requested a county with some organized labor. I was assigned to Wapello County, whose largest city is Ottumwa (mythical home of Radar O’Reilly from TV’s MASH). Ottumwa had a John Deer tractor plant and the employees were represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Let’s start with the obvious. It is really cold in Iowa in January and getting people to turn out for the caucuses is not easy. It was –30 degrees wind chill for much of the month of January in 1988 in Ottumwa. For those of us who grew up in the South (and accordingly have “thin” blood), that’s like being at the North Pole. I can’t believe that Iowa natives like that kind of temperature either.

Gephardt won the Iowa caucus in 1988 and it is instructive to examine how he pulled this off. First, there was less media scrutiny on Iowa 20 years ago and the campaign could be run more cheaply. Secondly, you didn’t need as many people to organize the state then as you do today. Not every serious candidate had good field staff deployed throughout the state.

And finally, Gephardt was a neighbor from the nearby midwestern state of Missouri. Iowans could identify with him and it was comparatively easy for him to bring large numbers of volunteers into the state who didn’t live too far away.

Since a relatively low percentage of Iowa registered voters actually take part in the caucuses, having an organizational base is vital. In 1988, Gephardt had the support of labor and they delivered large numbers of seasoned caucus organizers and actual participants. Also, Gephardt captured a populist message about keeping jobs in the United States that resonated with Iowa voters.

Today, organized labor is split in its support of the three major Democratic candidates, so no one in the field can command a solid base.

After his Iowa victory, Gephardt ran out of money and was not able to be competitive in the rush of primaries that followed. Michael Dukakis, the ultimate nominee, ran third in Iowa but had a big cash advantage over Gephardt and was able to outspend Gephardt in the succeeding weeks.

Today, all the major Democratic candidates have raised very significant money by starting so early and presumably will have the resources to compete in the rapid succession of primaries during the following month.

Also, anyone who finishes first or a strong second will be able to raise significant additional money because of the advent of the Internet -- a fundraising tool that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

And just a word about New Hampshire, where a primary will be held five days after the Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire voters are notoriously independent and often have supported someone who didn’t win in Iowa.

In 1984, I supported former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., for president. He finished second in Iowa and went on to win the New Hampshire primary. Every four years, the television networks run pictures of Hart’s victory speech in New Hampshire to remind viewers of the unpredictability of the New Hampshire electorate. If you look closely at the picture, you will see a young Congressman from Texas with lots of hair standing behind Hart that night.

Iowa does not decide presidential nomination races but it will give some candidates a boost and perhaps significantly narrow the field. Sit back in your warm homes in front of the television on Jan. 3 and enjoy the first act of a fascinating political drama.

A FINAL NOTE: This is my last regular column for FOX. I will be devoting my energies in 2008 to America Votes, an organization established to increase turnout among progressive voters, and to my private law practice. There are, in fact, only so many hours in a day. It’s been fun and I may be back in less hectic times.

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Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.