In Iowa, 2016 Has Begun — At Least For The Republican Party

Mar 9, 2015
Originally published on March 9, 2015 4:07 pm

After five days spent driving around Iowa, meeting with political activists, consultants and regular voters, one thing is clear: the 2016 presidential campaign is on — at least on one side.

Nine GOP Men, One Stage, Six Hours

Over the weekend, there was what can only be described as a Republican cattle call: 900 people and nine potential presidential candidates packed into a large hall at the state fairgrounds for the Iowa Ag Summit. On stage, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Rick Scott and Scott Walker fielded questions about farming, trade and, of course, ethanol.

Six hours later, the not-officially-declared but all but certain GOP hopefuls were on the road, for meet-and-greets and various campaign-style events. For former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the destination was a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Cedar Rapids.

When people considering a presidential bid start showing up at Pizza Ranch restaurants, there's only one reasonable conclusion: The campaign season has begun (even if the lakes are still frozen).

Bush already has hired a top Iowa political consultant to run his eventual campaign, and he's far from the only Republican scooping up staff, reserving office space and building enthusiasm among Iowa GOP activists.

For self-described "whoohoo girl" Joni Scotter, this is a little bit of heaven. She has already met most of the GOP candidates, including Bush, who gave her a hug Saturday night at the Pizza Ranch.

"We've got so many candidates out there that are so exciting and they take my breath away," says Scotter.

For The Democrats, It's Crickets ... So Far

I drove out to Council Bluff, Iowa, in the far west of the state, to have lunch with Linda Nelson — the Pottawattamie County Democratic Chair, a retired elementary school teacher with a surprisingly salty vocabulary.

There are at least two reasons she had time for lunch with an out-of-town reporter. One, she's retired. And two, there's not a whole heck of a lot going on when it comes to campaign activities.

By this time in the cycle, you'd expect to see candidates making the rounds, but there has been very little of that so far.

She's getting a lot of questions from her fellow Democrats: "Who's in and where are they and how soon are they coming," she says.

Of course, the really big question is if or when Hillary Clinton will say she's running.

"You know the big elephant in the room, the nose not yet under the tent yet, is Mrs. Clinton," says Nelson.

Behind the scenes the former first lady and secretary of state has been bringing on staff. Her people are making calls, and operatives here expect a campaign infrastructure to pop up soon. But for the local activists like Nelson, it has just been a lot of watching and waiting and reading unflattering stories about emails and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.

"With her not making an announcement — not giving us a direct signal that she will be running — then others are, as we know, not getting in, and so it's just holding up the whole process," says Nelson, before turning to the real reason this is a concern. "As a county party chair, this is how we build our party."

The party uses events with candidates to raise money and recruit volunteers, who during the general election will make calls and knock on doors. Now, they talk wistfully about the electricity of 2008. There was a whole crowd of serious democratic contenders competing for their attention. One county party chairman told me that by this time in 2007, he'd already met Barack Obama, twice.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is holding events, but he's not even really a Democrat. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has one operative on the ground in Iowa and four events in the state scheduled over the next month.

But, by Iowa standards, less than a year from the caucus, that's the equivalent of crickets. And the Democratic activists here worry if there isn't a real fight, that could be the sound right through 2016.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Talk to many people in Iowa and they seem to have this uncanny ability. They know the agendas of presidential candidates by heart. They know their habits, their movements. That's because they get to spend so much time with them. Campaigning begins in Iowa long before most people think about the next election. NPR's Tamara Keith spent the last week or so in Iowa meeting party activists. Her conclusion: it's on, at least on one side.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Over the weekend, there was what can only be described as a Republican cattle call.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

KEITH: OK, that's not what it really sounded like at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please welcome New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Scott Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: Six hours later, the not-officially-declared but all but certain GOP hopefuls were on the road for meet-and-greets and various campaign-style events. For former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the destination was a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Cedar Rapids.

(APPLAUSE)

GOVERNOR JEB BUSH: Thank you all for coming. I thought we were having pizza, so that's why I came.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: I don't know what you guys are doing. But I'll shake as many hands as I can, and then I'm heading back to Miami. Thanks for letting me come. I'll see you back here a lot.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: He'll be back a lot, he said. Bush has already hired a top Iowa political consultant to run his eventual campaign, and he's far from the only Republican scooping up staff, reserving office space and building enthusiasm among Iowa GOP activists.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey, Jeb, you're a little taller than I am, bud.

BUSH: I know.

KEITH: Bush took questions for about 30 minutes in a beyond-capacity back room at the pizza buffet. And as he spoke, a woman named Joni Scotter sat in the second row and glowed.

JONI SCOTTER: You know, I'm a woo-hoo girl. I love politics so much.

KEITH: And as a Republican in Iowa, she's in luck.

SCOTTER: I have really met every candidate, pretty much.

KEITH: Already?

SCOTTER: Already, yes.

KEITH: Except for Bobby Jindal. Scotter thinks she knows who she'll support, but she isn't saying.

SCOTTER: We've got so many candidates out there that are so exciting, and they take my breath away.

KEITH: Compare that to what's happening with the Democrats...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS)

KEITH: OK, that's not really what it sounds like. Caroline Koppes is a retired teacher and Democratic super volunteer.

CAROLINE KOPPES: It's pretty quiet right now.

KEITH: That's the message I got from, well, just about every Democrat I talked to in Iowa.

SCOTT BRENNAN: We're seeing activity on the other side, but not as much on our side. And so we just want some attention.

BRET NILLES: People start to get anxious when all they see are Republican candidates.

KURT MEYER: I can't say that I'm hearing that there's a lot of excitement.

LINDA NELSON: Who's in? And where are they? And how soon are they coming?

KEITH: Those were Scott Brennan, Bret Nilles, Kurt Meyer and Linda Nelson. She's the Pottawattamie County Democratic chair. Nelson says she's getting a lot of questions from her fellow Democrats, who remember fondly the electricity of 2008. There was a whole crowd of serious Democratic contenders competing for their attention. This year, they are still waiting for a sign.

NELSON: You know, the big elephant in the room, the nose not under the tent yet, is Mrs. Clinton.

KEITH: Behind the scenes, the former first lady and secretary of state has been bringing on staff. Her people are making calls, and operatives here expect a campaign infrastructure to pop up soon. But for the local activists like Nelson, it's just been a lot of watching, and waiting and reading unflattering stories about emails and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.

NELSON: With her not making an announcement, not just giving us a direct signal that she will be running, then others are, as we know, are not getting in. And so it's just holding up the whole process. And as a county party chair, I mean, this is how we build our party.

KEITH: The party uses events with candidates to raise money and to recruit volunteers who during the general election will make calls and knock on doors. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is holding events, but he's not even really a Democrat. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has one operative on the ground in Iowa and four events in the state scheduled over the next month. But by Iowa standards, less than a year from the caucus, that's the equivalent of...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS)

KEITH: And the Democratic activists here worry if there isn't a real fight, that could be the sound right through 2016. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.