12/07/2011 09:44 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Drake and the Caucuses: How Iowa Reveals the Great Oz

I will freely admit that ten years ago I had no idea why I was coming to Iowa, beyond the fact that I really liked Drake University. But over the past decade, the land of financial services, corn and pigs (in Iowa-speak, I should say hogs) has made me a better political scientist. The upcoming presidential debate on campus helps illustrate why.

Something really interesting happens in Iowa -- candidates come and hang out with us for years at a time. Some, like Chris Dodd in 2008, literally become Iowa residents. I spent seven years in Washington, D.C. and I'm fairly certain that none of the presidential candidates just up and move there so that they can get to know the people of D.C. But here in the rolling hills of middle America, they flock to us, chat with us, eat really bizarre foods on sticks at our state fair (not to mention gelatinous concoctions in church basements), visit us at work, tromp through the snow and ice, and exhibit tremendous patience as we quiz them on everything from immigration to healthcare to energy to foreign policy.

Iowans are tough customers when it comes to getting to know candidates, and we expect the undivided attention of every major American politician. If you want to be president, we expect you to come through us first.

That, naturally, makes for a very odd world. One random Saturday in the middle of June, you may be taking a leisurely stroll through the farmers market, sampling the tasty tomatoes, and bump into a legitimate presidential contender. Or a friend may call and say, "Hey, let's go see Mitt Romney tonight," and before you know it, you're sitting six feet away from someone who could be the next commander-in-chief. Go to the Drake Diner for lunch someday and you're likely to witness a quick campaign trail meal for Hillary Clinton, Rick Perry or Wesley Clark (all of whom I've actually seen eating at the Diner)...

It's weird. And it takes a little getting used to.

For those of us who have chosen to be political scientists, it's a particularly strange thing. Any undergraduate student who has ever declared a political science major knows the most common pitfall of doing so -- you go home for Thanksgiving break and all your parents friends ask, "so, you're going to be a politician?" with a wary smile, as if to say "gosh, I thought you were a good kid, but now I really question allowing you to babysit my children -- apparently, you are a delusional and/or greedy and/or power-hungry and/or egotistical freak."

But it's a rare political scientist who actually becomes a politician. Woodrow Wilson and Iowa's own Congressman David Loebsack are among the limited few. Most of us study politics, which doesn't mean that we practice politics particularly well. Really, it's amazing how non-political most political scientists actually are.

Nonetheless, we have grand visions of creating engaged citizens. We care about politics, at least in the abstract. We vote. We watch the news. We follow presidential elections. We collect data and analyze it, with the goal of understanding what we see. We assume that our attention to the political world will naturally foster interest among our students.

Sometimes it works well. Sometimes it doesn't. But my experience shows that Iowa is a particularly effective petri dish for political enthusiasm -- one need only look at the buzz around this upcoming ABC/The Des Moines Register/Republican Party of Iowa/Yahoo debate (on Twitter #IowaDebate) as evidence.