Iowa caucus: the way of the dinosaur?

As presidential hopefuls opt out of the Jan. 19 contest, Iowans still try to engage voters, especially young ones.

There's a certain wistfulness to Iowa voters these days. They've been dissed by two of the nine Democratic presidential candidates, who have taken their marbles elsewhere - that is, away from Iowa's first-in-the-nation nominating contest, the precinct caucuses. They're also obsessing about gray hair.

When I arrived here last week to follow the campaign of Rep. Dick Gephardt (D) of Missouri, I expected to find feisty Democrats fighting back: How dare Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark skip our caucuses? Don't they understand that Iowa is a crucial steppingstone to the Democratic nomination?

Instead, I found people were agreeing it made sense for both to skip the Hawkeye State. Senator Lieberman's conservative views (e.g., supporting President Bush on Iraq) and General Clark's late start made it impossible for either to gain traction with the liberal party regulars who make up the bulk of caucusgoers.

And then, unbidden, I got a lot of hand-wringing over whether the Iowa caucuses may go the way of the dinosaur - not because candidates will stop coming, but because voters will.

The last Iowa Democratic caucuses that really mattered were in 1988 - the first time, as it happens, Mr. Gephardt ran for president. In 1992, Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin ran, so it was no contest. In 1996, President Clinton was running for reelection. In 2000, Iowa was Vice President Gore's to lose. Now, a real Iowa donnybrook is in the making as Gephardt, the fellow Midwesterner, surges and Howard Dean tries to fight the notion that he's peaked here. The two are neck and neck in Iowa polls.

"I just hope people show up," says Lynn Fletchall, a corn and soy farmer attending Gephardt's appearance at the Webster City Senior Center. "A lot of the people who came to the caucuses in 1988 are either in nursing homes or dead. Forget about people in their 20s and 30s - can we get people in their 40s and 50s to come out?"

The 1,993 caucuses slated for Jan. 19 (read: cold, maybe snowy) are an evening-long affair of discussion and horse-trading; if some candidates' partisans find they don't pass the required threshold of 15 percent of caucusgoers present, they are strongly encouraged to find another candidate. Or they can go "undecided," the winner in 1976, when Jimmy Carter grabbed headlines for his strong caucus showing.

As if to prove Mr. Fletchall's point, a reporter from a national newsmagazine asks if I'd mind answering a few questions. "Sorry!" I say, waving my reporter's notebook, which she hadn't seen. Another "young" Iowa voter who doesn't exist.

Of course, college towns have their share of youthful Dean supporters; and in the middle of a weekday, your best bet for turnout at a political event will always be seniors (though Gephardt's Iowa spokesman, Bill Burton, says even they're hard to pry away from bridge club).

Even after hours, crowds here skew older. This time around, Iowa Democratic officials say, 50 percent of caucusgoers will be senior citizens, compared with 36 percent four years ago. Which is why two teenagers arriving at a weekday morning Gephardt event in Pocahontas caught my attention. One carried a notebook. Maybe she's writing for her school newspaper?

After the event, I stopped her. "I'm a Dean supporter," said Beth Johnson, a senior at Pocahontas Area High School, "but I would support Gephardt also." She prefers Dean on civil rights. Benjamin Williams, the other student, also supports Dean, because of his record in Vermont on healthcare, education, and civil unions.

Are they unusual among their peers? "Oh, yeah!" they laugh, not only because they're active in politics, to the point of editorial-writing, parade-marching, and door-knocking, but also because they're Democrats in a rural, Republican part of the state. Ms. Johnson's mother had signed her out of school to attend, even though her mom's a Republican. "She's supportive of my getting involved," Johnson says.

Despite Iowa's demographic trend lines, the state's political class is excited for Jan. 19. Democratic officials foresee a much bigger turnout - between 100,000 and 140,000 voters - than in 2000, when about 60,000 showed up.

"They're having trouble deciding this time, because people like several of the candidates," says Barbara Leach, an Iowa Democratic activist now based in Washington. "In the last month, a bunch of undecideds will move solidly. We'll see people watching from afar, not on anybody's lists, and they'll walk in."

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