I sat in a small darkened theater in Des Moines last week enjoying the theatrical production: “Caucus! The Musical, Episode 2012: The GOP Strikes Back.” It’s an entertaining tale, from playwright Robert John Ford, looking at the bizarre nature of the Iowa caucuses. (Think about it, no disrespect to Iowa, but why do we let 1 percent of the population have such a weighted stake in determining who will be our next president, especially when only a tiny percentage of Iowans actually participate in the caucuses?)
The basic gist of the play is that four fictional presidential candidates, with many traits similar to the real-life candidates, desperately try to outdo each other to get the “average” Iowan to like them, and subsequently, vote for them. (Check out the song “Anything for a Vote” below.) The play ends with the main characters apathetic and largely disgusted by the politicians, their pandering, and shall we kindly say, their half-truths.
I saw the play after a week in Iowa and thought it summed up the mood of the electorate perfectly. I was there to work on a few global economics stories that will be broadcast soon, but I couldn’t help asking nearly everybody I met – from mayors, to shop owners, to random people in diners – the same question: Which candidates, and their messages, are resonating with you?
In total, I probably posed this question 40 or 50 times. I didn’t find a single person, not one, from either political persuasion, who expressed genuine excitement for any candidate. (To be equally harsh toward the Democrats, I didn’t find anybody who voiced a passionate defense of President Obama.) That’s not to say that everybody hated the candidates, though many did. They were just, well, apathetic.
I asked David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University who also studies the caucuses, if the disinterest I was sensing was an accurate reflection of Iowan voters? Yes, it was.
“This caucus is different,” said Swenson. “Attention has been diffused across many more platforms, many more states, many more opportunities to articulate their message. They’ve (the candidates) spent less time here, with fewer advertisements, fewer people on the ground. And the caucuses this time, in Iowa, the presence is just much less significant.”
In other words, Iowans are being ignored relative to previous election cycles. But the shun goes much deeper than that.
“Historically the candidates have brought a goodie bag of ideas that they thought would sell well in Iowa, and the ideas tended to lean towards farm policy, favorable policies for ethanol, favorable policies for corn and corn producers,” said Swenson. “The candidates aren’t offering as many goodies as they have in the past.”
So, while I enjoyed the song “Anything for a Vote” very much, perhaps a better song might’ve been: “Not So Much, This Time, for a Vote.”