The state's caucus-goers are the most sought-after group in presidential politics. But their voices have been strangely absent from the narrative this cycle.
SIOUX CITY, IOWA -- The Iowan had something to say to Mitt Romney, but Romney didn't seem to be listening.
"My question is, what are you going to do for agriculture?" said the man in the black jacket with a picture of a tractor on the back. "I think we should just totally do away with the farm program -- get rid of it, make us sink or swim on our own and get some incentives to get the young people back in there," he added.
In response, Romney reminisced about working on his uncle's ranch in Idaho, blamed the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation for squelching loans and investment, and launched into that most hoary of Iowa-pandering cliches, a paean to ethanol.
"I know some of my friends think that we should just not worry about ethanol," Romney said. "I actually like the fact that ethanol is part of our energy mix." He finished his long answer by vowing to "do my best to keep the American farm sector alive and well."
But what about getting rid of the farm program? Romney didn't say.
In a campaign season that's been driven by a steady stream of nationally televised debates, the voices of the voters -- especially those all-important Iowa caucus-goers -- have been largely drowned out. The candidates and media spend less time in Iowa and the other early states, and when they're there, they often seem to be speaking more to an idea of Iowa than the real people who will vote on Jan. 3.
The result is a disconnect between caucus-goers and the candidates trying to woo them -- a phenomenon that helps to explain the dramatic fluctuations in the electorate in recent months.
Romney's back-and-forth with the man in the tractor jacket was a case in point, even if he was just doing what candidates always do and answering the question he would prefer to have gotten: Iowa caucus-goers are difficult to pigeonhole. Just when you think they're looking for assurances their agricultural subsidies won't stop flowing, it turns out they want to hear the opposite.
"We're a tough bunch to figure out," said Christopher Rants, a former speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives from Sioux City who's supporting Romney. "That's why Mitt Romney has probably been reluctant to come back. He tried once, and he got it wrong."
Iowa caucus-goers, for all their sway, are a rather tiny tribe -- about 120,000 attended the 2008 Republican caucuses, and many expect turnout to be slightly lower in 2012. Though too easily caricatured as overwhelmingly churchy and rural, there's some truth to that perception: In 2008, according to CNN's caucus entrance poll, 60 percent described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and 69 percent were from rural areas.
But interviews with dozens of die-hard Republican caucus-goers in recent weeks found a wide swath of opinions among caucus-goers old and young, urban and rural. All shared a determination to pick the right Republican nominee to oust President Obama, but they disagreed on what that meant; some favored Romney as the electable candidate based on polls showing him narrowing the gap with Obama, while others felt a tough, pugilistic conservative would be better equipped to take on the incumbent than a mealy-mouthed pragmatist lacking in charisma.
They also tended to share a sense that this election represents a crucial referendum on the country's direction. The imperative to oust Obama, they repeatedly said, was not merely a Republican's desire to defeat a Democrat, but a necessity to prevent what they saw as disastrous consequences for America's well-being and the American ideal itself. There was an apocalyptic tone and a genuine fear in many of their comments.
Bill Van Vliete, a 72-year-old Des Moines interior designer, said his top priority was "beating our current president." Why? "His basic philosophy is so counter to anything I understand or believe," he said. "I really believe he is undoing our country systematically."
Van Vliete had just seen Rick Santorum speak at a conservative group's breakfast meeting at a Machine Shed restaurant in a Des Moines suburb. He said he'd been impressed by the former Pennsylvania senator but was still "wrestling" with his choice of candidate.
"I'm just overcome with the dishonesty of government right now," he said.
The urgency of defeating Obama and the hard-line ethos of the tea party movement have made Iowa voters more demanding this year, said Chuck Laudner, a GOP operative based in Rockford, two hours north of Des Moines near the Minnesota border.
"Usually when a candidate comes to Iowa, they try to own an issue area -- the pro-life candidate, the flat tax candidate, the immigration candidate -- and they build a coalition out from there," said Laudner, who is supporting Santorum. "But since the last caucus in 2008, everything the government touches is on fire. We're in crisis mode. Barack Obama spurred the whole tea party movement.
"Now people want a full-spectrum conservative -- a rock-ribbed, consistent fighter for all of these issues," Laudner added. "The bar is exceedingly high. That's why you see candidates shoot up to 30 percent and then the bottom falls out all of a sudden."
The problem is that Iowans' passion for defeating Obama isn't matched by passion for any of the candidates. "Folks aren't putting up signs and wearing pins like they usually would -- it's so uncertain," said Ann Trimble Ray, a consultant and activist who lives in Early, a city of 600 situated halfway between Fort Dodge and Des Moines.
"There is a sense, not of panic exactly, but anxiety about how late it is and the fact that they haven't decided," Trimble Ray added.
One evening last week in downtown Des Moines, over a thousand likely caucus-goers attended the screening of a pro-life film hosted by Mike Huckabee at which Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Santorum all spoke.
"I really never thought I would have to worry about losing my country in my lifetime, but the last two or three years, that has become a real concern," said Robert Dopf, a semi-retired Des Moines lawyer who chairs Iowa Right to Life. "I've got grandkids, and the way it's going, they're not going to grow up in the kind of country I was privileged to know."
Many of the religious conservatives at the event dismissed the idea that the economy ought to trump cultural concerns. "If you get life right, everything else falls into place," said Stacie West, echoing a common sentiment expressed by candidates and audience members alike.
West, 35, teaches Braille to blind children in the small town of Cromwell. Her words illustrate why cultural issues always seem to take center stage in the campaign even though relatively few voters call them decisive: For those voters, abortion is an absolute litmus test, the sine qua non of all other priorities. There is also a sense that, while other issues are a matter of technical calculation, social issues indicate a candidate's deeper moral convictions, and values are not subject to the vicissitudes of policy debates.