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Drake and the Caucuses: Ring Side Seats

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Here at Drake University, as classes gear up for the final stretch, we are anxiously awaiting our moment in the spotlight when we host ABC News for a nationally-televised Republican candidate debate on the evening of December 10. For a smaller liberal arts university located in the middle of the country, it's a rare privilege to host such an event. To do so during the last week of classes, and the weekend before finals, poses its fair share of challenges, but the Drake community is ready to be up close and personal with the candidates, the media, and the horde of people ready to make a trek to our campus to make this happen.

Planning has been happening for weeks, and yet there are a million things that need to happen -- so despite the dark circles under our eyes, we come to work and send hundreds of emails to each other, detailing everything from bomb-sniffing dogs and street closures to fire alarms and cheese plates.

The immediate task at hand is to comb through the student applications to intern with ABC News. At stake are the professional dreams of some of our very best students, all of whom are suitably excited by the opportunity to pick out a tie for George Stephanopoulos or drive an ABC producer to Home Depot for a screwdriver, thereby avoiding a potentially catastrophic moment when the set crashes down on eight would-be presidents of the United States.

I'm a professor of Politics and International Relations at Drake University. I am confident that I do a number of things very well; I am also certain that there are things I simply cannot do. I enjoy my students, and want to see them be happy and productive. There are, however, limits to what I can do to make dreams come true. Just to be clear -- I love the opportunity to facilitate learning about the political arena and I appreciate the large number of people who are interested in being involved. However, here is a quick list of things I cannot do:

1. I cannot move the debate. Sheslow Auditorium is a lovely space. True, it holds only 700 people, which means we have to limit attendance.

2. Yes, Secret Service requires your Social Security number if you want to attend the debate.

3. No, I cannot make parking spaces appear on command. Nor can I suddenly increase the size of our campus to accommodate any group that wants a room. I apologize.

4. Sorry, I cannot guarantee there will be no snow. I've tried perfecting my snow dance, but my dancing abilities simply are not that good. If I could, I would -- trust me on that.

And finally, drumroll please . . .

5. I cannot get you a ticket. I don't know how people find me, but they do, and I think it's great that everyone wants to come. But I can't help. I'm not just saying it -- it's actually true.


So given all of that, why spend all this time on the debate? There are several reasons.

Obviously, we at Drake have a great opportunity to see students work with ABC and attend the debate. And this is an Iowa debate. And Iowa is the land of corn and presidential candidates. We can have a legitimate debate about the role of Iowa in the process (that may come later), but the fact is that Iowa has a unique role in vetting the candidates. Sometimes that happens at small town diners and around kitchen tables (until you see it, this sounds trite, but it's absolutely true and it's unlike any democratic process I've ever seen). But it also happens in debates and forums where Iowa activists gather to see the candidates side by side.

This debate comes just 3 weeks before Iowans caucus, and appears to be the second to last debate in the Hawkeye state. That means it can have real consequences.

Not that there haven't been a number of great debates among this field. But Iowans can be fickle, and despite the conventional wisdom that social conservatives will dominate the caucus, this one's up for grabs. The social conservative narrative is easy, but let's remember that social conservative voters did not succeed in nominating one of their own in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, nor did they succeed in getting their choices put on the ticket for Lieutenant Governor. In other words, in a statewide Republican vote, the social conservatives didn't win in 2010.

So why does the story of social conservative domination survive? The 2010 Iowa judicial retention vote certainly has a role to play. But that was about one specific issue -- gay marriage -- and a lot of money from out-of-state groups. The 2008 Huckabee victory plays its own role. But Huckabee was not just a social conservative. His campaign was ideally suited to Iowa -- folksy and authentic. Seriously -- the only food to be found at his straw poll booth was watermelon from Arkansas!

In order to really understand the role of the debate on December 10, you need to understand the caucus itself. Voters don't just go to the polls on a designated day and spend a few minutes voting. They meet with their neighbors in a small venue at a specific time on a designated day. And in the Republican caucus, the winner takes all. That means babysitters and early dinners and traveling down snowy and/or icy dirt roads in the rural hills of Iowa. To put it simply, this requires real commitment. That means campaigns need to create committed voters -- which requires real live on-the-ground organization. You can't win this thing by appealing to one segment of the party or running advertisements or spending a lot of money. You need to really put in some elbow grease.

The most recent Des Moines Register poll about three weeks ago found that fully 59% of Iowans likely to participate in the Republican caucus could be persuaded to vote for a candidate other than their current favorite. That means that Iowans are still waiting to see more of and hear more from the candidates.

The December 10 debate will let them do just that.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share the inside scoop as Drake prepares to host the debate. You'll also be hearing from Drake students who will share their thoughts on the debate, the political landscape in general and more specifically the candidates.