Some weeks ago former Bush political operative Karl Rove put it bluntly to Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama; win Iowa or lose the Democratic nomination. A month before Rove's admonition, Obama's wife, Michelle, told her hubby pretty much the same thing; win Iowa or lose the nomination. Obama moved fast to distance himself from his wife's blanket assertion about Iowa. He assured that Iowa is only one state and that a loss there wouldn't spell doom for his campaign. But even as he downplayed his wife's remark, and was publicly mute about Rove's Iowa rejoinder, he knew better.
In fact, virtually from the moment he stood on the steps of the state capitol building in Springfield, Illinois last February and announced the launch of his "Dream campaign" he knew that Iowa was big, very big, so big that he dumped more money into his campaign there, opened more field offices there than Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and virtually camped out in the state. A win there certainly gives a candidate a rocket launch boost in public and party standing, much media attention, and potentially piles of campaign money. Iowa did much for underdog John Kerry and sunk frontrunner Howard Dean in 2004. Kerry won Iowa and bagged the nomination, and Dean bungled it, he quickly became a laughingstock and a bare campaign 2004 footnote.
An Iowa win won't do that for Obama, but to put it bluntly it will give a hint whether he can get a majority or at least a significant percent of whites to vote for him. Iowa is one of the whitest and most rural states in the union. White voters make up more than ninety percent of the state's voters.
That poses a possibility and a pitfall. He will have to convince the voters that he can deliver on his promises on health care, revving up the economy, labor protections, can wind down the Iraq War, and wage a tough war on terrorism. He then must hope and pray that enough of them buy his message, and not succumb to the dread voting booth conversion on Election Day. That is the penchant for white voters to swear to pollsters and interviewers that they are absolutely color-blind when it comes to black candidates, and that the only thing they judge them on is their record and qualifications. And then once in the quiet and very private confines of the voting booth, develop collective amnesia and vote for the white candidate.
Voting booth conversion has spelled doom for legions of black candidates that were thought to be shoo-in winners in head to head contests against white opponents, and then go down to crashing defeat on Election Day. Polls have shown that Obama will either win Iowa or make a big showing there, and the odds are good that in this case the polls are accurate. He is riding what appears to be a genuine crest of public goodwill, and mixed with his likability, personal appeal, charisma, and media fawning, that should be enough to convince enough white Iowa voters that he is a legitimate change agent and can bring the directional shift that millions of American voters say they desperately crave away from Bush's disastrous domestic and foreign policies.
But while Iowa is important for Obama, it's also an aberration among the heartland states. It is moderately Democratic leaning, has a mild populist tradition, and voters are known to be independent on candidates and issues. These are the exact opposite traits of the other heartland states which are traditionalist, deeply conservative, and rock solid Republican. No white Democratic presidential candidate has managed to crack them in recent elections, and that includes Bill Clinton. He won not one heartland state in 1996.
These states are a far better gauge of whether Obama can really convince millions of white voters, especially white male voters, who still make up nearly forty percent of the country's voters and have been the path to the White House for Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. Clinton who slightly dented the GOP lock on the South had to deftly pirouette and convince the voters there that he would not pander to special interest i.e. minorities and women.
Even if Obama is able to speak the language of white voters in Iowa, and convince them that he's not a black presidential candidate, but a color neutral presidential candidate, that won't lift the clouds of suspicion about him in the other heartland states. A win or a big showing in Iowa will give Obama's dream campaign an adrenalin shot, and may convince more of the Democratic Party shot callers that he, not Hillary, is the party's go to candidate. That won't dispel the doubts of the mass of heartland voters that he's still a political question mark, or the deeper fear that he's too liberal, inexperienced, and an African-American. Iowa is a test for Obama. It's by no means the final one.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February, 2007).