What to Expect in Iowa

Eight years ago, on the night of the Iowa caucuses, I was huddled in my New Hampshire office with fellow staffers on the Howard Dean campaign. We’d taken in the disappointing news that he finished third — a jolt, given his frontrunner status. But with a week until our state’s primary, we were convinced he could rebound — until he took the stage to speak, that is.

“The Scream” began as an innocent rallying cry to supporters; Dean was simply yelling to be heard over the noise of the crowd. But the TV cameras, connected only to his microphone, didn’t pick up any other sounds. What seemed like a stirring motivational speech to people in the Hawkeye State looked like a bizarre rampage to television viewers elsewhere. One of my interns gaped: “He looks like the Incredible Hulk!”

Our campaign didn’t recover, of course — but I had plenty of time in between campaign stops to analyze the lessons the caucuses afforded. Based on hard-fought experience, here are four things I’m expecting to see in Iowa this cycle.

Geography matters. If the presidential nomination could have been decided by an online plebiscite, Howard Dean would have crushed the competition. But alas — in 2004, and still today — elections are won based on actual geography. It seemed like a good idea at the time to import 3500 overly-enthused out-of-staters wearing orange caps to harass Iowans into voting for Dean. Perhaps in retrospect you can see why it didn’t work out. So who appeals to actual Iowans? Polling is historically unreliable for the caucuses, but one trend has emerged among Republicans: they tend to surprise expectations and go for very conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee.

(Advantage: Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, or maybe Rick Santorum. Iowa likes dark horses.)

Passion counts. It’s hard for voters in most states to imagine, but you don’t just walk into a booth in Iowa and pull a lever The caucuses usually take an hour, during which you sit through candidate representatives yakking and a bevy of other business. It’s much less complicated than the Democrats’ arcane caucus proceedings — but nonetheless, it requires a lot of commitment on a cold winter night. That’s why candidates with passionate, committed supporters can make a splash in Iowa.

(Advantage: Ron Paul and his zealous fans.)

Negative ads work. For months, Republican voters have been cycling through candidates in search of anyone who isn’t Romney. In early December, it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s turn to be in vogue. Well, no more of that: super-PACs run by Romney supporters went nuclear on Gingrich, driving him down in the polls. Voters consistently bemoan attack ads — but there’s a reason they’re used so often. Back in 2004, independent groups run by supporters of John Kerry and Dick Gephardt ran TV ads eviscerating Dean, including one showing a photo of Osama bin Laden while an ominous voiceover derided Dean’s lack of foreign policy experience. Sadly, it worked like a charm.

(Disadvantage: Gingrich.)

Momentum matters. Luck plays an uncomfortably large role in determining the leader of the free world. Newt Gingrich — like Dean before him — is feeling the pang of ill-timing; if the caucuses had been held a month earlier, either man might well have cruised to the nomination. Instead, the machinations of the next few days will determine who has the elusive “Big Mo” going into the caucuses — and a caucus win will either seal the deal for frontrunner Romney or give voters one last chance to sample an alternative.

(Advantage: Whoever wins. Game on.)

This post was originally published on January 3, the morning of the Iowa Caucuses, in the MetroWest Daily News.

Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and the author of Reinventing You