President Obama’s three-day, nine-city bus tour of Iowa this week seems less a part of his 2012 reelection campaign — which usually involves jetting across the country on Air Force One — than a throwback to the retail politics that won him the Iowa caucuses more than four years ago.
But the president’s unusual extended visit to Iowa isn’t just a trip down memory lane. Iowa is up for grabs this fall. Public polling, although scarce, shows a dead heat, and observers describe a close race that could tilt in either direction on Election Day. The state that launched Obama to the White House could end up voting him out of it.
(PICTURES: Campaigning at the State Fair)
The precarious state of play explains why the president has already spent seven days campaigning in Iowa this year, a frequency that feels disproportionate for a state that has only six electoral votes. It also explains why he’s not the only one focusing on the Midwestern battleground: Mitt Romney’s new running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin made a solo campaign trip there on Monday, visiting the Iowa State Fair.
“I think that everybody’s analysis of how you win the election includes Iowa,” said Ann Selzer, an independent Hawkeye State pollster. “Are we more important than Ohio? Not in terms of the number of votes, but they might be the critical votes.”
“That’s how I read this calculus,” she said, adding that Obama’s advisers “think they have to win Iowa. They’re not convinced they have it, but they think they can if they put some money and time into it.”
A raft of local issues has potential to influence which way the state goes. Tax credits for wind and ethanol production are important to its economy, and the drought plaguing the region has put a renewed emphasis on passage of the farm bill in Congress. Obama and his team are trying to use all of those issues to their advantage, particularly the wind tax credit — which both Romney and Ryan oppose extending.
But more than anything, Iowa is poised to emerge as a litmus test for Ryan's audacious and controversial budget blueprint. Among other things, his plan — now at the forefront of the presidential campaign — would give future seniors vouchers to buy coverage from Medicare or private insurers.
Although current Medicare recipients are exempt from the changes Ryan wants to make, they are the most resistant to his proposal. A CNN/ORC International survey last year reported that 74 percent of seniors opposed the Ryan budget. And measuring by percentage of seniors in the population, Iowa is the fifth-oldest state in the country — among presidential battlegrounds, only Pennsylvania and Florida top it.
In 2008, according to exit polls, seniors constituted 18 percent of the Iowa vote. “We do have an older population in Iowa, and there’s a lot of opposition to any plan that would privatize Medicare and turn it into a voucher system,” said Erin Seidler, Obama’s communications director in Iowa.
Republicans, however, think they can sell the Ryan budget to Iowans. They point to the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Republican Terry Branstad unseated Democratic Gov. Chet Culver by emphasizing his opposition to debt. The lesson can be applied to the presidential race, where Romney and Ryan have framed their agenda as necessary to save the country from fiscal ruin.
“I think that’s a great instrument to blunt any kind of attacks against Paul Ryan’s budget,” said Matt Strawn, the former Iowa GOP chairman who was running the state party when Branstad won. “Iowans, especially among seniors, have a tremendous aversion to debt.”
On the stump this week, Obama said that not only would the Romney-Ryan ticket “end Medicare as we know it,” the pair’s budget plans would dig the debt hole even deeper. Along with hard-edged politics, he also indulged in a little nostalgia about the stunning caucus win that propelled him to the presidency.
“That campaign back in 2007, 2008, it had plenty of ups and downs But no matter what, you, the people of Iowa, had my back,” he said at his first stop in Council Bluffs. “You had my back. When the pundits had written us off, when we were down in the polls, you believed in me, and I believed in you. And it was on your front porches and in your backyards where the movement for change in this country began.”
Iowa went on to back Obama by nearly 10 points in the general election, bringing its record of voting for Democratic presidential nominees to four of the last five elections (George W. Bush in 2004 was the only exception.) The president will need to rediscover at least a little of his old magic to make it five out of six.