On the Ground in Iowa
Mitt Romney said during the December 10 debate that he sees tons of Ron Paul signs around the state, which I can confirm from my travels. As recently as December 13, polls had Rep. Paul possibly winning Iowa, though in 2004 we saw how greatly polls fluctuate in caucuses. And though New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently reported more statistics to support the claim of Paul rising, from my discussions and historical review, the Texas congressman's followers are the proverbial "vocal minority" we often see with unorthodox presidential candidates like Strom Thurmond or Henry Wallace in 1948. Lindaman concurs:
Paul's supporters are very loud, but not nearly as widespread as they’d have us believe. This was evident in 2008 when he got a lot of attention, but wound up in single digits and way out of the top tier. His organizers had a real problem getting people out to support him when it counted, and I don't see that being any different this year. Like "Occupy," the buzz is bigger than the actual numbers.
Bruce Atterbury is a retired commercial truck driver from Burlington, a blue-collar town of 25,000 along the Mississippi in the southeastern part of the state. He, like many Midwesterners, has socially conservative views, but doesn't necessarily trust the GOP fiscally. A registered independent, Atterbury is in his 60s with two children and three grandchildren. Des Moines County, which houses Burlington, has seen a steady decrease in population due to the economic downturn. It now has just over 40,000 residents. Obama won by 23 points there due to support from independents, but as we’ve seen across America, this tide seems to be changing:
I've been following it closely, and the Republicans I'd support over Obama are Huntsman, Santorum, Bachmann, and maybe Perry. … Romney's a phony, but I feel I can trust some of the others, though not Ron Paul. Newt's really smart, but I wouldn't vote for him.
Trevor LeCroix is a 33-year-old civil engineer in Pella, a charming town of 10,000 between Des Moines and Burlington. LeCroix was raised in Davenport, a city ten times that size along the Mississippi in the Quad Cities region; his parents were union railroaders who voted Democrat despite being devout Catholics. LeCroix, who runs his own construction company and has three young children, has voted Republican in every election since his first opportunity in 1996. He's simple: anyone but Obama:
I loved Cain, and it was a tragedy what they did to him. Now Perry and Bachmann are my people, but I just want Obama out.
Though he's not enamored with the former Massachusetts governor, LeCroix firmly believes Romney is the most electable:
Yeah, I can see him winning easily. Polls show that he's besting Obama in the swing states. Whatever it takes, man. I'm tired of the president's class warfare.
Three other heavily populated areas are worth following in January, as well as next November.
Linn County is home of Iowa's second largest city, Cedar Rapids, with over 200,000 residents. Obama won there by more than 20 points in 2008.
Blackhawk County is home to Waterloo and Cedar Falls. The county has over 100,000 people, and the latter city contains the University of Northern Iowa, with nearly 15,000 (92 percent in-state) students. Obama bested McCain in this area by 22 points last election.
Woodbury County, in the northwestern part of the state where the highly watched December 15 debate occurred, has over 100,000 residents. But unlike other counties we've explored, it borders deep red Nebraska and South Dakota, and thus leaned McCain's way. Sioux City, population 85,000, is the county seat.
Johnson County, in the east-central part of the state, is heavily populated, but not a factor in January nor November, as it is home to the University of Iowa. Once called the "Berkeley of the Midwest," Iowa City is as left-wing as they come. The area saw one of Obama's largest wins anywhere in 2008, as he received over 70% of the vote.
Iowa polls and trends have been as fluid as any in recent memory. Whatever happens that Tuesday in the heartland will likely have been unpredictable.