Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life

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Thoughts from a university professor on the Iowa hamlets that will shape the contours of the GOP contest

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IOWA CITY -- On January 3, Iowans will trudge through snow, sleet, sludge, ice, gale-force blizzards -- whatever it takes -- to join their neighbors that evening in 1,784 living rooms, community halls, recreation centers, and public-school gymnasiums in a kind of bygone-era town-hall meeting at which they'll eat and debate, and then vote for presidential candidates along party lines. Chat 'n' Chews, they are called.

These Iowa Caucuses create a seismic shift in the presidential nominating contests. Obama catapulted to the top of the Democrats' dance card when he captured 38 percent of Iowa voters in 2008, and then swept to victory at the Democratic Convention eight months later. Without such a strong initial showing in Iowa, Obama might not have been able to steamroll through subsequent state primaries to win the presidency.

Since Obama is the presumed Democratic candidate in 2012, this year it's the Republican candidates who have trained their attentions on the state these brisk, late-autumn days. They're falling over each other in front of grain elevators and cornfields, over biscuits and gravy in breakfast cafes, and at potluck dinners (casseroles are the thing to bring), glad-handing and backslapping as many Iowa voters they can. Great photo ops, you know. Hoisting a baby in the air is good politics. So's gulping down a brat (short for bratwurst).

Considering the state's enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is.

For almost 20 years I've lived in Iowa, where as a professor at the University of Iowa I've taught thousands of university students. I've written a couple of books on rural Iowa, traveling to all 99 counties, and have spent much of my time when not teaching, visiting with and interviewing Iowans from across the state. I haven't taken up hunting or fishing, the main hobbies of rural Iowans, but I'm a fan of University of Iowa Hawkeye football, so I'm a good third of the way to becoming an adopted Iowan. I even have a dog, born and bred in Iowa (more on that later).

* * *

Iowa is not flat as a pancake, despite what most people think. Northeast of Cedar Rapids is actually pretty hilly. It's an agricultural (corns and soybeans), landlocked state. While Iowa's landmass is a little larger than England's, its population is only three million, about 17 times smaller. The state's name derives from the Ioway Indians, one of several tribes that used to call the region home. Of Iowa's 99 counties, 88 are classified as rural. Iowa's capital and largest city is Des Moines (pop: 203,000), whose primary business is insurance. The state is 91 percent white.*

On the state's eastern edge lies the Mississippi River, dotted with towns with splendid names like Keokuk, Toolesboro, Fruitland, Muscatine, Montpelier, Buffalo, Sabula, Davenport, Dubuque, and Guttenberg. Each once was a booming city on the swollen banks of the river that long ago opened the middle of America to expansion, civilization, abundance, and prosperity. Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Mississippi these days except rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional kayaker circumnavigating garbage, beer cans, and assorted debris. The majestic river that once defined the United States has been rendered commercially irrelevant these days.

Mark Twain once lived in Southeast Iowa, in Keokuk, working at his brother's printing press. He also was employed nearby as a reporter for the Muscatine Journal. When Twain lived in Keokuk 150 years ago, the Gateway City was a sought-after destination; some seriously said Keokuk would someday rival Chicago as a metropolis of culture and commerce. Thirty-eight hotels crowned the intersection of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers. The coming of the railroads changed all that, and today, Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they're some of the skuzziest cities I've ever been to, and that's saying something.

On Iowa's western frontier lies the Missouri River, which girds a huge, sparsely populated agricultural region anchored by Sioux City (pop: 83,000) in the state's far northwest and Council Bluffs (pop: 62,230), across from the Nebraska hub of Omaha. Eskimo Pies, the original I-Scream Bar, was invented by a Danish immigrant in Onawa, a tiny town not far from the Missouri, and today you can visit an Eskimo Pie display at the Monona County Historical Museum there.

In between these two great, defining rivers, Iowa is a place of bizarre contrasts. The state is split politically: to the east of Des Moines, Iowa is solidly Democratic; to the west, it's rabidly Republican. Iowa's two U.S. Senators are emblematic of this schizophrenia: Fundamentalist Republican Charles Grassley and Ultra-liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. Grassley is 78; Harkin 72; both have held seats in either the U.S. Senate or House since 1975.

Insular Iowa is also home to the most conservative, and, some say, wackiest congressman in America, Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents the vast western third of the state. Some of King's doozies: calling Senator Joe McCarthy a "hero for America"; comparing illegal immigrants to stray cats that wind up on people's porches; and praying that Supreme Court "Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba." Keith Olbermann named King not only the worst congressman in the U.S., but the Worst Person in the World six times.

Considering the above, not just a few Iowa heads turned when a District Court in Des Moines in 2007 declared same-sex marriages legal. Iowa, at the time, was the second state in the U.S. to allow gays to marry each other, a decision the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld two years later. In retaliation, Iowa conservatives in 2010 mounted a successful campaign to oust three of the justices who ruled on behalf of same-sex marriage. Marriage between two same-sex people is legal in Iowa for now, but may not be for long. So far, Democrats have blocked a statewide referendum on the issue (Dems hold sway in the Iowa Senate 26-24), but if Republicans take control of the Senate, gay marriage could -- and likely would -- be repealed.*

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Stephen G. Bloom is Professor and Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar at the University of Iowa. This year, he is the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and The Oxford Project (with Peter Feldstein).

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