As Caucus Nears, Iowa's Relevance Again Questioned

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Every caucus season, swarms of politicians and journalists descend on Iowa. Inevitably the question arises: Why should this state have so much influence?

This year, one particularly harsh article about Iowa is getting almost as much attention in the state as the candidates themselves. The article, written by Iowa resident Stephen Bloom, raises some old questions about the state's role in selecting the nation's president.

"Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life," published in The Atlantic, makes Iowa out to be less Field of Dreams and more Deliverance meets Children of the Corn.

Getting A Rise Out Of People

In between mentions of the "gently rolling plains," Bloom, a University of Iowa professor, depicts rural Iowa as a place of "waste-toids and meth addicts" where there are "elderly waiting to die."

One town he calls out as a "depressed, crime-infested slum" is Keokuk.

"Like a lot of river towns, Keokuk has had recent economic distress because of industry leaving and going overseas, and those kinds of things," Chuck Betts, the director of the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce, says. "So yeah ... we have been economically distressed for a while, that's true. But you can't find a town in the United States that that's not true about."

The article raises some hard truths about Iowa and how it doesn't accurately represent America. For instance, more than 90 percent of Iowans are white. Many of its towns have fewer than 1,000 people.

But for many here, this piece felt personal.

"I think in a way he was profiling us to be like nasty river people that don't do anything at all, that kind of thing," says Tanner Walden, a bell ringer at a Salvation Army bucket in Keokuk.

Walden's sister and fellow bell ringer, Brianna, says that parts of the article may be truthful.

"But I think there's a better way of putting things. Like, he didn't have to be so blunt about everything I guess," she says, "and that gets a rise out of people."

In fact, some of the reactions to the article have been considerably nasty. Bloom declined to comment for this story, but he told a blogger this week that his family has received death threats.

Not Just 'Campaign Props'

Still, there is a journalistic tradition of reporters writing stories many Iowans feel are just too simple.

"If they would just rent a hangar at the airport and stock it with a farmer and a cow and a pig and a horse and a pitchfork and a barrel of hay, they could fly right in, do their stereotypical photo op and fly right out again," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.

He points out that for just as long as Iowa's had its critics, it's had a rebuttal: the democracy-in-the-heartland argument.

"In the bigger states with bigger populations, regular voters tend to be treated simply as a campaign prop for a photo op or something like that," he says. "In Iowa, voters have to be treated as individual or real human beings, and that's good for the candidates."

Now, he says, that might be changing, as campaigns are spending less time in Iowa and voters are more able to form their opinions from national debates.

Still, the caucuses are a unique event. Voters — many of them rural, many of them white — come out at a specific time and place and debate issues and candidates.

Back To Business

Iowans are fine with it this way. They've heard all the criticisms before. While some may sting, most are shrugged off.

Like Betts of Keokuk's Chamber of Commerce, they might even make a tourism campaign out of it.

"This is an opportunity. In fact, I'm throwing around the idea of hosting a 'Crime-Infested Slum Days' sometime in the future. Perhaps Mr. Bloom's birthday will be the date of the celebration," Betts says. "And that's kind of a half-serious idea."

As Iowa Republicans prepare to caucus in just 10 days, they'll put the insults aside and focus on choosing a candidate.

Copyright 2011 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.iowapublicradio.org.

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