Then presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a barbecue in… (Kevin Sanders / Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines, Iowa — The memo leaked in the spring of 2007. A deputy campaign manager for Hillary Rodham Clinton urged her to skip the Iowa caucuses in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Participating in the first contest of the 2008 presidential calendar, he wrote, was expensive, outdated and unnecessary.
Iowans, who take their role as first presidential vetters seriously, were not amused. Clinton scrambled into damage-control mode. But she'd violated an unwritten Iowa rule: Never, ever, give voice to the idea that Iowa is not the center of the political universe.
As the 2012 presidential season warms up, aspiring nominees have launched their efforts in the quadrennial wooing of Iowa's notoriously demanding voters. The caucuses — more than 1,700 small gatherings in living rooms, schools and libraries around the state — are tentatively set for early February.
With the Democratic incumbent in the White House facing no serious challenger from his own party, it is Republican candidates who will roam from Des Moines to Davenport to Dubuque over the next seven months. In coffee shops, cornfields and backyards, they will endeavor to win over voters, one small gathering at a time. And as they do, they will navigate the minefield that is the tacit Code of the Caucus. Intentionally or accidentally transgressing the rules can cost voter support — Clinton finished third — or incur lasting ridicule.
Take a certain suave U.S. senator from Illinois, standing next to an Iowa cornfield in July 2007.
"Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" said Barack Obama, who with one flippant remark undid months of careful man-of-the-people rhetoric. "I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff."
Yeah, maybe on the Upper West Side.
"Most Iowans sat there and said, 'Whaaaa?' Their eyes glazed over," said Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State University's Center for Women and Politics. "They didn't know what Whole Foods was, and they didn't know what arugula was. He should've been talking about Iowa sweet corn. At the local Fairway." (Iowa will not get a Whole Foods Market until next spring.) Obama hit the doldrums after that, and supporters began wondering why he wasn't able to connect with voters.
The campaign code is about authenticity, Iowa style. "You have to talk, look and act like an Iowan," Bystrom said. "Genuine, humble, of the people.... We notice what kind of shoes you wear."
Those who turn out on caucus night are overwhelmingly white, generally older than 45 and constitute only a sliver of eligible voters. An estimated 60% of Iowa Republicans identify themselves as evangelical Christians. In 2008, an unprecedented number of young Democratic voters energized by the youthful Obama turned out, but no one expects a repeat in 2012.
The voters here are direct and, though generally polite, don't shy away from confrontation. Newt Gingrich found that out a few weeks ago, when, after he criticized fellow Republican Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare reform, a Fox News camera caught an exchange between him and an Iowa voter.
"What you just did to Paul Ryan is unforgivable," said the man.
Gingrich, appearing rattled, came across as defensive: "I didn't do anything to Paul Ryan."
Iowa's brand of retail politicking has become ritual since 1972, when Iowa Democrats moved up the date of their caucuses. Four years later, the Republicans followed suit, and the first-in-the-nation status focused attention on the arcane nominating event.
Since then, Iowans have wielded their position on the calendar to demand an intimacy with presidential hopefuls rivaled only by the down-to-earth voters of New Hampshire, whose traditional first primary is currently scheduled about a week later.
In both places, you can stretch the political truth, but you must keep your local facts straight. Iowa Republicans were paying close attention recently when Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann an Iowa native, mistakenly placed Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire instead of Massachusetts.
"Makes you wince," said Chuck Laudner, a GOP activist from Rockford, Iowa.
Sometimes the code is a matter of simple etiquette. Whether a candidate is in Manchester, N.H., or Mason City, Iowa, he or she must maintain eye contact while meeting a voter.
"If they are shaking your hand, but already looking at the next person, that's a mistake, that means they don't really feel like they want to be there," Laudner said. "Newt [Gingrich] has a tendency to do that."
A big entourage may work in Hollywood, but it irks Iowans.
"That was one of the real criticisms of Hillary," said Des Moines political consultant Bob Haus. "She had a big bubble. That prevents people from getting to you."