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Iowa: Eighteen Months And Counting

About eighteen months before the 2012 Iowa Caucuses take place, shaping the next presidential campaign, the state’s second legendary event, the Iowa State Fair, which runs from August 12 until August 22, is being held in a relatively apolitical atmosphere.

But you are never too far from politics in Iowa, and pols were very evident in the vast, three-hour parade that kicked off the parade on Wednesday night. By ancient tradition, current elected officials ride or march at the beginning of the parade, and candidates who are not in office are at the tail-end. Thus, Democratic Governor Chet Culver was right up front, while the once-and-perhaps-future governor, Republican Terry Branstad, was scheduled to appear well behind the Iowa Pork Queen, the Shriners, the vintage John Deere tractors, two roller-derby teams, and the Southwest Iowa High School Honor Band, among many others (which may be why he ultimately let his running-mate represent him in the event). It was, joked many, the first time Culver’s led Branstad all year.

There were only three putative presidential candidates on this year’s Fair schedule, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but they are simply the first wave. As one of my Iowa friends put it: “Next year at the Fair there’ll be so many candidates, you won’t be able to stir ’em with a stick.” Presumably they will be better briefed than doomed 2008 candidate Fred Thompson, who showed up wearing Gucci loafers and spent the day tooling around on a golf cart (a definite no-no unless you are a Major Fair Sponsor; everyone else must walk the goo-encrusted dust or mud).

Even in the dog days of an unusually hot summer with widespread recent flooding, the midterm campaigns here are gearing down for a heavy stretch-run, fueled by the generous subsidies that would-be presidents routinely lavish on the state parties, and watched by an unusually checked-in electorate acutely aware of its role in national politics.

Iowa Democrats had a breakthrough year in the last midterms in 2006, winning control of the state legislature and the governorship together for the first time in 42 years. (They also picked up two congressional seats.) And in 2008, obviously, Iowa Democrats played a big role in the eventual nomination of Barack Obama, who carried the state handily in November. Iowa’s reputation for progressivism was also burnished in 2009, when its Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, making the state an unlikely spot for destination weddings. (One t-shirt I spotted at the State Fair had this legend: “8-4-10: California Is Finally As Gay As Iowa”).

But even though Iowa’s unemployment rate is well below the national average (6.8% in June), it has not escaped the sour mood that’s affecting politics, and particularly Democrats, nationally.

The President’s job approval ratings in Iowa aren’t that bad; according to a Rasmussen poll in early July, they stood at a 48-52 ratio, better than the 44-55 ratio the same pollster showed nationally at about the same time. But Chet Culver’s job approval ratio has been in the negative range for months in every poll taken since last fall; the Des Moines Register had it at 36-53 in February (with only 37% approval in union households, reflecting Culver’s stormy relationship with public sector unions), PPP showed it at 28-56 in early June; and Rasmussen had it at 37-61 in early August.

Unsurprisingly, Terry Brandstad, who served as governor from 1983-1999 before “retiring,” has been leading Culver by a minimum of fifteen points in every major poll taken in the last year. Branstad’s biggest hurdle so far was winning the Republican nomination against 2006 nominee for Lt. Gov. (and 2008 Mike Huckabee Iowa campaign chairman) Bob Vander Plaats, whose underfunded campaign was a redoubt for restive social conservatives whose mistrust of Branstad goes back quite some time. Branstad’s underwhelming 50-41 win in the June 8 primary–even after he was endorsed by Sarah Palin–was a reminder of the power of conservative activists in this state, particularly in lower-turnout caucuses like those that serve as an abbatoir for presidential candidates. Indeed, Branstad’s camp had to endure post-primary reports that Vander Plaats was considering a third-party run that would have instantly made the general election a barnburner, before Vander Plaats finally announced he was devoting his immediate future to an effort to recall the State Supreme Court Judges (two of whom were appointed by Branstad) who legalized same-sex marriage. Vander Plaats has not, significantly, endorsed Branstad.

There are recent signs that Chet Culver’s repairing his relationship with key elements of the Democratic base in Iowa (including those public-sector unions who have bad memories of the Branstad Administration) and the gubernatorial race could well tighten up. Moreover, Republicans are not currently favored to pick off any of the allegedly vulnerable Democratic U.S. House Members; top target Leonard Boswell’s race is currently rated “Lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report. The fight for control of the state legislature will be vicious and probably close.

But for those interested in Iowa primarily because of its role in the presidential nominating process, the things to watch are more limited. If Branstad wins, will his close association with Mitt Romney matter a lot going into the Caucuses, or will Palin’s late (and unsolicited) endorsement of Branstad help keep him neutral? Will the Iowa conservative crusade against same-sex marriage in Iowa help mobilize right-bent activists and help candidates other than Romney (including perhaps Huckabee, who beat Romney here in 2008 despite a vast financial disadvantage)? Will candidates like Tim Pawlenty and long-shot Rick Santorum become viable by spending a lot of early time here? And will some potential president make Fred Thompson’s mistake and violate the unwritten but iron rules of Iowa culture between now and then, perhaps disdaining a bite of Hot Beef Sundae or deep-fried Oreos, or failing to express admiration for the winner of the Big Boar Contest, with cameras nearby?

Those of us in the commentariat wondering about this right now are few, but a year from now, like the candidates at the Iowa State Fair, you won’t be able to stir ’em with a stick.