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Early Iowa caucuses preserve the classic campaign

BY BENJAMIN EVANS | JANUARY 25, 2012 7:20 AM

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Choirs of dissenters sing their displeasure at the Iowa Republican Party for its inefficiency with the delayed release of the final results of the caucuses, which finally declared former Sen. Rick Santorum as the official winner. Many pointed to the dying and archaic caucus system as the reason for the confusion, while others pointed fingers at Matt Strawn, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, for the delay.

But the fault of the confusion surrounding the Iowa Republican Party's official declaration of Santorum as the winner does not lie with the GOP but with the confusion of what the Iowa caucuses really mean for presidential-nomination candidates and for Iowa: It's not about the number of votes or the delegates distributed — it's about the rigorous process allowing the weak to become polished and the strong to be challenged.

With the aftermath of University of Iowa Professor Stephen Bloom's bitterly reflective piece in The Atlantic, mixed with the state's single, highlighting moment in the national political arena, the cocktail of stoic pride and heightened self-consciousness intoxicated Iowans during the caucus season. Seemingly, people forgot what politics in Iowa really is: the chance to make something out of nothing, perhaps better characterized as the American Dream.

The romantic, perhaps idealistic notion of a poor peanut farmer becoming president of the United States through the means of the political climate bred in our state is unrealistic. Of course there is always money and adaptation of ideologies to suit our specific brand, but there is one thing an ill-funded, media-starved candidate cannot manufacture: name recognition.

Ask any political scientist, and she or he will describe in simple terms the supreme importance of name recognition in elections: the common sense adage explaining the relative success of such candidates as Rep. Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Stephen Colbert. The more a person recognizes the name of a candidate, the more likely the person is to vote for him — the reason a poll by Public Policy Polling found Colbert would rake in 13 percent of the vote in a third-party bid for president next to President Obama and Mitt Romney. No one really knows his policies, but they know his name.

Iowa supplies the stage for small candidates, such as Santorum and Obama in 2008, to become powerhouses in their respective races. Before the Iowa caucuses in 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton was thought by the majority of the Democratic Party to be the presumptive nominee, but as Obama spoke one-on-one at homes and rallies in Iowa, his grass-roots base become more enthusiastic and his name more pronounced, leading to his eventual caucus victory.

The Iowa caucuses give prospective nominees a chance to fine-tune their campaigns, streamlining their processes, while still maintaining the grass-roots skills they need to win a general election. It is a dress rehearsal for the national stage. Certain candidates' performances in debates and on-camera slanders leading up to the caucuses proved completely necessary to the success of each campaign.

In Iowa, each drop of sweat perspired by a candidate is a vote, with TV spots and handshakes being equally powerful. Iowa is the great equalizer in the realm of Super PACs and frontloading, giving each candidate an equal chance to make a name for themselves. The caucuses are not as much about the exact number of votes a candidate gets, but which candidates get the votes.

Iowans need to achieve a level of comfort with the idea articulated crudely by Jon Huntsman: Iowans do not pick presidents. We train them.


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