I was in Iowa over the weekend. It was a good reminder that in spite of all the hype about national polls and who is raising the most money, in the place that will have the most influence over who will be the Democratic presidential nominee, things are still as wide open as any presidential race I have ever seen. The fact that there are so many interesting candidates has made Iowans less ready to commit, not more ready.
I was in town to speak at the annual delegates assembly of the Iowa Citizen Action Network, the biggest progressive coalition in the state which I ran back in the mid-1980s. Their membership includes a wide cross-section of union locals, community organizations, farm groups, churches, trial lawyers and other organizations, as well as tens of thousands of individual members. The folks that were there are as good a statewide cross-section of local Democratic precinct captains as you'll find at any gathering in the state. Here are some observations:
1. This primary is completely wide open. Except for the Obama staffers and volunteers there to work the crowd because Obama was the keynote speaker, I did not talk to a single person who was firmly in one camp or another. There were some folks leaning toward a candidate, but no one who described themselves as committed. And remember, these people are the activists, the political junkies. If you are betting money on who is going to win Iowa, don't bet too much, because the folks there are taking their time to pick out a candidate.
2. Most of the people who did say they were leaning someplace were leaning towards Edwards, and it was all people who had been with him before. Here is a sentence I heard about half a dozen times that day: "Well, I haven't decided for sure, but I was with Edwards last time and none of the other candidates has shown me why I should change my mind." Don't underestimate the importance of Edwards getting a third of the caucus-goers four years ago. People in Iowa really get to know the candidates, and don't give their commitments easily, but once they do- absent a big reason to change- they also tend not to move away from those candidates. Given the star power in the race, I don't expect Edwards to pick up a lot of new people, but absent some big mistake on his part or some other big new development, he is likely to keep most of the people he had last time, and that is a hell of a base to start with.
3. Obama has a really good core of leadership in the state, and people are just as fascinated by him as the rest of the country, but he has a long way to go in terms of building support. I didn't talk to a single person at the conference who said they were leaning his way yet. People thought his speech was pretty good, it was well-received, but people were no more likely after his speech to be for him than they were beforehand.
The cross-section of Iowans I was with on Saturday was a little more populist and progressive than the average Iowan caucus-goer, but not by much: Iowa Democratic caucus-goers tend toward progressive populism. If my trip there was any indication, this race is really fluid, but my suggestion is that you not underestimate John Edwards.
Mike Lux is the president of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and consults for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies, L.L.C.