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The Tao Of Iowa Caucus Voters

Posted December 31, 2007 | 07:34 PM (EST)



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DES MOINES -- Lynn Sweet, the big dog political columnist for the Chicago Sun Times - fond of wearing clogs on the campaign trial, snapping photographs with her little digital camera, and doing some damn good reporting on her favorite or least favorite candidate d'jour this cycle, Barack Obama - extracted a promise from me to write this story "by tomorrow morning."

Eleven-thirty at night, after four campaign events and two glasses of red wine at Centro - a high-end restaurant smack in the middle of downtown Des Moines that has become a popular swill spot with the press corps - is never a good time to make a promise.

However, when I woke up this morning, I didn't first want to write about the 527-stealth advertising flap between Obama and Edwards, or the Biden campaign staffers' bedbug bites - they are: "quite large" - or busting in on Michele Obama's 'closed to the press' uncommitted voters meeting in a nearby coffee shop, but head-tripping on the first line of Lynn Sweet's story.

This one's for you, Lynn:

This is the Tao - the way of nature - for the Iowa Democratic voters; the back story on how the voters here may be lining up on caucus night, January 3, based on my intimate knowledge - and experience - of living in most of the capitol city's diverse neighborhoods.

As Des Moines goes, generally the rest of the larger cities go in the state. And let's face it. I've got the hometown chops to sing this very particular political song.

Here's my scorecard for Des Moines' various Blue neighborhoods that may well give more information than polls or anecdotal traditional reportage on campaign events, paid staff numbers, and campaign bank account balances.

Southside: Obama takes it. Edwards comes in second. Hillary Clinton rides in third, unless Biden isn't viable and then his supporters will actually decide the final outcome.

Mostly middle-class and white, but with more than their share of professionals and active Dems, there is also a new heavy influx of Mexican immigrants, who have yet to assert themselves into a powerful voting block. These voters want tax relief for the middle class, affordable higher education and health care, and an end to the war in Iraq.

Known as our "Little Italy," this is a bastion of Democratic voters for as long as I can remember. At age five, I vividly recall the sparks flying after my grandmother once lost Grandpa's entire weekly check from the Colonial Bakery by playing Bingo in the basement of St. Anthony's Catholic Church.

Most of the original Italian families here have morphed into successful professionals and savvy politicians that weld enormous power within city, county, and state government.

When Jimmy Sarcone, the elected Polk County District Attorney, introduced Barack Obama last night at Weeks Middle School on the Southside - he drew 1,000 voters on a Sunday night with temperatures dipping down to 21 degrees - and I knew it was a good sign for Obama.

Sarcone hails from a family of politicians. The Sarcones have long memories, know where the bodies are buried, and they play political hardball.

After six years of campaigning in Iowa, Edwards has his devoted fans on the Southside, and they are experienced caucus-goers. They can expertly cut deals and trade votes when tempers start to fly and viability is at stake.

However, much of his support comes from union endorsements and while union membership is not small on the Southside, they don't own the political machine. The elected officials are the kingmakers.

If an Iowa voter hasn't already chosen HRC, it is unlikely they are going to give her their second vote. She has a fine organization throughout the state with 450 staffers on the ground and more volunteers, so she earns one of the three top spots for the Southside, but not the winning one.

Joe Biden is the wild card here and he could tip the scales for either of the top tier candidates, should he not be viable in a precinct. His September endorsement by Kevin McCarthy, the State of Iowa's Majority House Leader, has been a huge get for his cash-strapped campaign.

McCarthy regularly brings in the largest crowds for Biden on Des Moines' Southside with upwards to one hundred or more voters gathered in tight spaces to hear Joe's straight talk and they like his foreign policy experience.

So, who gets Biden's voters if he isn't viable?

Not HRC for the reasons I've laid out. If voters haven't chosen her by now, they've eliminated her as an early top choice.

Edwards?

As one older, moderate Dem on the Southside told offthebus last night, "Edwards is just too much of a hot head. I'll go for Obama."

This is the same tune I've heard from many Biden supporters around the state.

There seems to be a natural affinity between Obama's inspiring message of hope and change and his high favorable rating that seem to mix well with the respect and likability of Joe Biden's supporters.

Both candidates support a dramatic shift in foreign policy, national healthcare, middle class tax relief, and affordable higher education - and they aren't mean about it.

Even more important, Biden and Obama, their supporters, and their campaign staffs don't hate each other.

There is so much bitterness and bad blood between HRC, Edwards, and Obama camps that I can't see their organizers or committed voters joining any other top tier candidate should they not be viable. They would rather go uncommitted than give the enemy one more vote at this early stage in the process.

As a long time Bill Clinton, now HRC supporter in Guthrie Center told OffTheBus last week, "If Hillary isn't viable and if Joe Biden isn't viable, I'll go uncommitted."

Eastside: Hillary Clinton territory all the way with John Edwards coming in a strong second. Obama isn't a factor here, nor are any of the lower tier candidates.

This is HRC's base: The working poor, mostly white, older, and the least formally educated. These Dems love Bill Clinton and want the Clintons back in the White House. They care more about affordable health care than any other issue. Many of their children and grandchildren have fought or are fighting in Iraq.

I spent the first twelve years in my life in this neighborhood, so please HuffPo readers, don't be charging me with being a snob. I escaped just in time to avoid becoming a high school drop-out, or an unwed mother, or worse.

Don't ask about policies or the finer points of any of the candidate's plans for the future, just drive by the neighborhood and you'll be amazed at the Clinton signs springing up in their yards - or maybe, you won't be.

For five to ten dollars a day, those who live near the Iowa State Fairgrounds will let you park on their front lawns. As one resident told OffTheBus, "That's how I pay for my property taxes." This isn't the poorest neighborhood in Des Moines, just one of them.

After a hot and muggy day skulking after presidential candidates, I stopped by one of the local bars across the street from the fair last August and asked a dozen beer sipping women - and their husbands - who they were going to caucus for come January.

The female choral response was far from surprising:

"Hillary Clinton!"

Asked if their husbands were also going to support Hillary for the nomination, their answer was rapid-fire:

"Damn right!"

The men nodded compliantly.

While there is a large union membership on the Eastside, most in the far eastside neighbors don't earn the middle-class wages of union members and the Clinton campaign has secured many of the elected politicians and the traditional party machine, along with more donations from PACS than any of the presidential candidates put together - Republican and Democrats.

Clinton and Edwards have each captured the biggest union endorsements, consequently, on the Eastside. Edwards remains HRC's chief competitor for the number one spot.

He recently held a big rally on the Eastside and over one thousand voters showed up, which proves he's got some momentum on his side and should handily take second place.

The Eastside also contains one of the largest Hispanic populations in the city; most are new immigrants working for low wages in unskilled jobs and yet, the lone Latino presidential candidate has not gained any significant traction here.

"Richardson's campaign keeps breaking appointments with people who agreed to organize house parties for him and you can't do that in Iowa. Basically, he's pissed off a lot of people in the Hispanic community," said Robin Heinemann, whose partner, Lorenzo Sandoval, is a Latino activist.

Near Northside: Obama wins followed by a tie between Edwards and Clinton.

This is a mixed race neighborhood of Blacks, Latinos, Laotian, and poor whites, most of whom live in substandard apartments or low-end housing and claim one of the city's highest high school drop-out rates, single family-headed households, alcohol and drug problems.

Their issues include: job creation, national health care, affordable higher education, and an end to the Iraq War.

Most work in low wage jobs, if they are employed at all. They have supported Bill Clinton in the past and they initially supported HRC until Barack Obama wooed a large majority of the church ladies, Black ministers, educators, and community organizers.

It'll be a tough battle, but they've spent time with Obama and he's successfully taken a bite out of HRC's earlier support in this needy and high-risk neighborhood that remains filled with active Dems.

Westside: Obama edges out Edwards for first. Edwards second and Hillary Clinton comes in third, but in the end, it'll be the lower tier candidate supporters deciding the winner by either throwing their support to one of the top candidates, or joining together under one of the lower tier candidate's banner, though the latter scenario is less likely.

The Westside is the premier neighborhood in the city, west and northwest of the downtown loop. The Des Moines Art Center is located here along with the sprawling neighborhood that stretches from the business district to the neighborhoods meeting the suburbs.

It is filled with modest single family homes, mansions, pristine prairie houses from the early 1900s, high rise condominiums and swank apartment buildings. The Drake University neighborhood with its active students, professors, and insurance employees abut the area known as Beaverdale to the north.

The Westside neighborhood includes the richest residents in the city, along with a large and stable middle and upper-middle class; mostly college educated, highly actively in the caucus process, and committed to major change in 2008. Most of all, they want a winner.

These voters are some of the best informed in the nation. They have rifled through all the candidates plans and then settled on the candidate of choice based on their policies... oh, and who they can stand to listen to for the next four or eight years. There is always the element of personality in any presidential election. Some just like HRC, some can't abide Edwards, some ldon't trust Obama, and some just love them all.

In truth, any of the Dem slate of smart candidates will do, but they have their favorites and it's not likely any of them will move over to the uncommitted group. They want their vote to count.

The biggest issues for them boil down to a radical change in foreign policy, an end to the Iraq war, stabilizing the economy (and Wall Street), passing a national health care plan, and assuring a Democratic majority in the Congress.

HRC has a solid support base here, but Obama has made significant inroads. His not-so-secret weapon is the popular and hardworking Beaverdale State Representative, Janet Peterson, who relentlessly recruits and organizes for him.

The 'Mo' is on Obama's side in this important neighborhood, with Edwards remaining a popular choice as well.

However, Biden, Dodd, and even, Richardson have their contingent of loyal, articulate, steadfast supporters, who may move to Obama or Edwards rather than joining Clinton, if their candidates aren't viable.

The battle in this neighborhood will be the fiercest and the one to watch. It may predict how the chips fall in the larger cities around Iowa.

The wrap-up:

It's close for all the top candidates and while Obama and Clinton are positioned to win the Dem vote in Des Moines, in the final analysis, it will be the second tier candidate supporters, most especially, Biden voters who will call the shots on caucus night, if their candidate fails to meet the viability requirement.

No one will yet go on the record to confirm that the deal cutting has begun between the front-runner campaigns and the second tier, or between the second tier campaigns with each other.

But, I have heard that overtures have begun between at least two campaigns - one top tier and one second tier - and that by New Year's Day, an 'agreement' between them will or will not be in place.

This is how the Iowa caucus really works.

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