Campaign 2012

Obama’s Iowa Idyll: Not Just a Trip Down Memory Lane

Crucial votes are at stake during a bus tour that combines nostalgia and hard-edged politics.

President Barack Obama is given an Iowa State Fair hat as he visits the Iowa State Fair, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Des Moines, Iowa.
National Journal
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Alex Roarty
Aug. 14, 2012, 6:51 a.m.

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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.


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