DEMOCRITIC: COLD PLAINS SPEAKING

By Published on .

IOWA CITY, Precinct 19 — A line of young people snaked around the lobby, eventually into the gym, at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center, anything to avoid the Iowa winter's bitterest night. An hour past the posted cutoff time, the line stalled as volunteers at the sign-in table ran out of registration cards. Flustered, they sent to a senior citizens' center in another precinct for more cards.

In 2000, a scant 100 people showed up for the Precinct 19 caucus vote. This past Jan. 19, 267 turned out. At The Mill, a bar a couple of blocks from the rec center, precinct captains reported overflow everywhere in the city. The state tallied attendance of 122,000, a total that affirms pundits' long-standing claims that Iowa is all about “organization,� and the buzz it can create in the proverbial grassroots. What pundits didn't count on, however, was the boost caucus members gave to Senators John Kerry and John Edwards. In effect, Iowa's voters issued a message to the field: get off your high horses, cut the mudslinging and dig us out of this mess.

Iowa's caucuses told a cautionary tale about electoral marketing. From their quadrennial nomination pole position, Iowans — if the reader will allow the generalization of a native — pride themselves on hyper-keen BS meters. Not taken in by myriad ads and almost daily direct mailers that former Vermont Governor, Howard Dean, et al., bombarded the state with, Iowans rejected hardball tactics in favor of down-home relevance. The lesson for marketers is that getting folks to buy a product is just half the job. You've also got to get them to buy the brand.

Tried-and-true lessons applied: a) keep one's eyes on the prize, and b) all politics (and marketing, for that matter) are increasingly local. Earlier, Congressman Richard Gephardt and Dean mobilized outsized grassroots networks in Iowa. As they “got out the vote,� Dean struck at Gephardt for rubber-stamping the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. Gephardt lashed back at Dean for his inexperience in foreign policy and sealing files in Vermont.

The Iowa populace's message to candidates — akin to the nation's as a whole — is “do something about the chronic economic problems here, at home.� Boasted “productivity gains� in late 2003 ring hollow, like nothing more than companies doing more with less. “Recovery� talk seems just talk in a state that has lost some 30,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, 4,300 of those in the first 10 months of 2003. Bush promised 2003 tax cuts would stimulate jobs, but the effect to date is far from convincing. What's more, as pay shrinks, an average $8,000 credit load per household crimps consumer confidence and behavior. Further, Harris Interactive's year-end “Alienation Index� found 69 percent of Americans believing that the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and an increased overall sense of alienation.

In November last year, the Des Moines Register's periodic Iowa Poll reported that a resounding 40 percent of potential Democratic caucus-goers considered “the economy and jobs� the most pressing political issue. Another 17 percent and 5 percent, respectively, cited the issues of health care and the budget deficit. Iraq garnered less than half the emphasis of voters' first priority (19 percent).

Kerry and Edwards tuned right in to this. How? Not having massive organizations on the ground they got on the ground themselves. Instead of backbiting, they traded in their suits for Carhartts. Kerry, flush enough to loan his campaign $850,000, met with veterans, including Iowans he'd served with in Vietnam, and played to his unique background of a well-bred man who nevertheless fought.

“He had to stop talking like a Senator and become a person,� says J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., the Des Moines firm that conducts the Iowa Poll. “If you look up that back issue of Esquire, there's Kerry and his wife in their formal living room, all this impressive art, a high-classed privileged background, and you know he's been to charm school and you can see him sitting down with heads of state — but with all that there's a certain social distance. But to use a veteran's expression, ‘the army is the great leveler.’�

Edwards — the North Carolina dark-horse who scored a coup with the Register's endorsement — charmed his way through Iowans BS meters, invoking his own blue-collar heritage. “Of everybody, he's folksiest, and not afraid to put himself out there, to work a crowd individually,� Selzer says. “He's ‘lovable,’ and at the same time he's sharp as steel. There is a mood of unhappiness, a feeling of powerlessness out there. But, while he understands that, he makes people feel good.�

Which is what Dean's trying to do. The difference, to date, has been one of showing versus telling. Kerry and Edwards dodged the mudfest. “They rose above the fracas that Iowans got pretty sick of,� said one Iowa City precinct captain. Dean's and Gephardt's contentiousness showed, the precinct captain added, an “arrogance, all this money spent to talk about each other, like being the early front-runners made it all about them. It's not. It's about us, and the country.�

The bulk of the Dean and Gephardt campaign expenditures may have gone for naught. As of a week before Jan. 19, Dean and affiliated interest groups spent $2.8 million on broadcast TV ads, while the Gephardt campaign spent nearly $2.3 million. Direct mail served as the primary channel, for their snipes, culminating in a barrage of strident TV ads.

“It had a boomerang effect,� says Dan Cramer, principal at Minneapolis political consultancy Grassroots Solutions. “Organization can increase turnout. You have to keep that connected to a unified campaign, in organization, in message.�

Kerry and Edwards spent $2.1 million and $1.5 million, respectively, on TV ads, digging into cash-on-hand. Total Iowa TV expenditures would eclipse $21 million by Jan. 19, according to the University of Wisconsin's Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks political spending in conjunction with TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, in Arlington, Va. The take-away: spending heavy was no guarantee.

That should prove heartening to Democrats. An Oct. 15, 2003, look at fund-raising for 2004 presidential candidates shows that Democrats face a Bush juggernaut. The Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org) listed the president's campaign pledges at $84.6 million ($73 million in hand), compared with Dean's $25.3 million ($12.4 million in hand, and $6.6 million of that now spent across Iowa, New Hampshire and other states), Kerry's $20 million, Edwards' $14 million and Gen. Wesley Clark's late-start $3.5 million.

Those numbers have grown considerably since October, but a gap in average donation sizes highlights Bush's advantage. Contributions of more than $2,000 accounted for 73 percent of the Bush total, 65 percent of Edwards', 55 percent of Kerry's, 31 percent of Clark's and just 13 percent of Dean's. Net net: Democrats likely won't come close to Bush's media firepower, but Iowa may prove that dollar volume and effect are not synonymous.

Progressive organizations, such as MoveOn.org and organized labor, have shown signs of coalescing into something of a popular front of anti-Bush campaigning, which could bolster the opposition. Kerry's camp claimed to have scored a $700,000 boost in new donations in the week after Iowa, and, obviously, Democratic hopefuls stand to gain more financially as their field continues to shrink with the two relatively Big Tuesdays. But Iowa should give them warning what not to do. Just saying “the Other Guy sucks� is it. To unseat Bush, the party will not only have to feel Americans pain, it will have to meet them where they live.

In this article:
Most Popular