In a sign of how hard-fought the 2012 election will be, one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the country carries only six electoral votes—one fewer than in 2008. Just two counties in Florida could swallow this small, shrinking state. But nearly every ad released by President Obama's reelection campaign—about a half dozen in all—and both television spots from Mitt Romney are airing in the rural and overwhelmingly white state of Iowa.
The state is also a prime target for outside groups allied with the two campaigns; on Wednesday, Planned Parenthood joined the fray with a $1.4 million blitz in three markets, including Des Moines. Cedar Rapids is seventh-busiest media market in the country this week, according to NBC/SMG Delta, beat out only by metropolitan areas in Ohio (18 electoral votes), North Carolina (15), and Virginia (13).
The intense focus on Iowa is especially interesting considering the state was practically left for dead after its famed straw poll and caucus both picked losers in the Republican primary and the state’s GOP chairman resigned after initially declaring Romney the winner of the January contest instead of Rick Santorum. Whether future primary candidates will invest heavily in the state is unclear.
But as the general election comes into focus, think of Iowa as that tiny piece that would complete a giant jigsaw puzzle of the White House for either Obama or Romney.
“Forget Facebook stock. The best stock you can buy is in Des Moines television and radio," quipped Matt Strawn, who resigned as state GOP chairman four months ago. “We are absolutely saturated, and will be through November."
Iowa carries special significance for the president, having vaulted him to the nomination when he defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 caucus. Obama went on to win the general election in Iowa by 10 percentage points, a victory even more stunning when you consider that President Bush narrowly won the state by roughly 10,000 votes in 2004 and lost it by less than 5,000 votes in 2000.
But in a clear sign of how the president’s fortunes have changed, Obama has been forced to play defense. A new NBC-Marist poll shows him tied with Romney, 44 to 44 percent, with one out of 10 voters undecided. No wonder Obama visited last week for the third time this year, and the Associated Press recently reported the campaign has already spent $2.6 million in the state. (Advertising dollars go a lot further in Iowa than in more expensive states like Florida and Ohio.)
What’s more, the president has lost the 100,000-plus edge in Democratic voter registration he enjoyed in 2008. As the Iowa Republican Party trumpeted two months ago, there are more Republican than Democratic voters in the state for the first time since 2006. The most recent voter registration figures show the GOP with an edge of about 9,000 voters. The swing in voter registration likely stems from a competitive Republican primary heaped with anti-Obama rhetoric, as well as purges of inactive voters.
Over the same period, the Republican Party gained control of the governor’s mansion and the state House and increased its minority in the state Senate. Strawn said the GOP also netted 100 local elected officials in the 2010 election, a growing infrastructure that could help Romney build grassroots support.
In the president’s favor, the unemployment rate is Iowa is 5.1 percent, significantly lower than the national average. While Romney was busy fending off challengers in a nasty primary battle, Obama has been steadily building a ground game and already has eight offices up and running in the state.
"I think all the work that they're doing organizationally is helping them even out the 10 months where we had constant Republican attacks on Barack Obama, which beat down all of his positives," said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in Des Moines. "That's why you're seeing the president and the First Lady and the vice president all come here."
The Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee have only recently started dispatching staffers to Iowa, but a combined 12 offices are planned in what would be the biggest GOP presence in a presidential election in the state.
Looking ahead, it’s hard to make a strong case for Republican candidates to invest big money in future straw polls in Iowa. Last year’s winner in Ames, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was quickly knocked out of contention. Meanwhile, her victory forced Tim Pawlenty, widely considered to be a much more formidable candidate, to bow out altogether. Romney didn’t compete at all in the straw poll, yet came in a close second in the caucus and won the nomination.
On the other hand, Santorum’s narrow victory in the caucus will help Iowa make its perennial pitch that it deserves to be at the forefront because it offers underdogs a chance to compete. In an era of unregulated, big-money politics, Santorum confirmed the value of an old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign.
“We go through this with the skeptics every four years about whether Iowa will be relevant," said Tim Albrecht, a top aide to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad who takes his role as a state booster seriously. “All I can say for sure is that in almost every model of how a candidate gets to 270 electoral votes, Iowa is in it."
The campaign in Iowa, as in the rest of the country, will hinge on the economy. In his first visit to the state since the caucus, Romney two weeks ago blamed the president for what he described as a “prairie fire of debt." Obama countered with his own country talk in his visit last week, calling Romney’s speech a “cowpie of distortion." The president, who spoke at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, also mocked Romney for saying at the same spot months earlier that, “Corporations are people, too."