BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JANUARY 31, 2000 ISSUE
WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Iowa Is a Bellwether of--Not a Whole Heck of a Lot


On Jan. 24, Iowa voters will gather in school auditoriums and Rotary Clubs to begin the Presidential selection process. From Keokuk to Sioux City, Iowans will have ''a massive impact'' on the race, says GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood.

Just one problem: The state that flexes such disproportionate muscle in the White House sweepstakes is one of the most atypical in the nation. What's wrong with the Iowa caucuses? Let us count the ways:

THE WHITE-BREAD FACTOR. Iowa is not representative of America. Its population is 96.5% Caucasian and 15% elderly. That makes Iowa the fifth-whitest and ninth-oldest state. Despite an influx of Hispanic immigrants, Latinos account for just 2% of residents. Iowa has only two cities with more than 100,000 people and virtually no suburbs. Since 1940, it has plummeted from the 20th-largest state to 30th. Although tech jobs are up, agribusiness remains king. No wonder there's scant discussion of urban blight, suburban sprawl, or Internet taxes.

THE (FAR) RIGHT STUFF. If Iowa isn't exactly a cross-section of the country, the caucuses aren't even a cross-section of Iowa. Only 20% of the state's voters take part, and many veer toward the political extremes. Democratic gatherings are dominated by union members, environmentalists, peaceniks, and other liberals. Republican meetings are packed with abortion foes and antitax zealots. They are ''much more extreme than the average voter,'' says Drake University professor Hugh Winebrenner, author of a book on the caucuses.

The result: Presidential candidates play to Iowa's narrow interests rather than the mainstream. Trying to woo pacifists, Democratic contender Bill Bradley has called for cuts in defense spending. Vice-President Al Gore endorsed a litmus test requiring the Joint Chiefs of Staff to favor gays serving openly in the military--a position he quickly reversed. And GOP favorite George W. Bush declared that Jesus Christ is his favorite political philosopher.

WHAT ECONOMIC BOOM? Only in Iowa could a candidate ask: ''Are you better off now than you were seven years ago?'' But that's just what Bradley did on Jan. 8. Why? With the rest of the U.S. about to celebrate the longest expansion ever, Iowa agriculture is in the dumps. Since 1996, corn and pork prices have plummeted, net farm income has tumbled 46%, and farm exports have declined 22%. That's why federal funds for farms is one welfare program White House wannabes wanna keep.

CAN YOU SPELL PANDER? As a New Jersey senator, Bradley opposed tax subsidies for ethanol. Now that he's running in Iowa, he's had a change of heart--probably because no candidate who opposes the state's cherished tax break stands a chance of winning. Arizona Senator John McCain, who likens the tax break to corporate welfare, understands this. He chose to skip the Iowa caucuses.

WRONG-TRACK RECORD. Iowa has a terrible track record of picking winners. If one of the Iowa favorites captures the White House, it would be the first time since 1976, when ex-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter won a bare-knuckles race. Historically, Iowa has been a road to oblivion for such previous first-place finishers as Bob Dole (a two-time champ) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Don't expect pols to risk the wrath of Iowa voters by even suggesting a study of the state's role in the selection process, though. Rather than ruffle Hawkeye feathers, all the candidates except McCain seem content to coo at the dodo bird of Presidential politics.

By Richard S. Dunham in Des Moines
EDITED BY PAULA DWYER

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