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WASHINGTON -- Iowa has long operated on the assumption that if its voters caucus first, presidential candidates will come.
But at Saturday's all-important Republican straw poll in Ames, some of the biggest names in GOP politics will be nowhere to be found. Among the no-shows: Presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney, Tea Party maven Sarah Palin, and potential powerhouse-in-waiting Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
This has cleared the field a bit for Minnesota Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, who are campaigning hard in the Hawkeye State, but who remain relative upstarts in national politics. Both have raised anew the perennial concerns about why Iowa should play such an outsized role in presidential fortunes. Pawlenty, whose campaign has suffered of late, finds pundits speculating about whether he will wash out based on his performance in a straw poll that measures its attendance at around 10,000. Bachmann's niche appeal among the religious conservatives who dominate GOP politics in the state has also fueled fresh criticism about Iowa's continued influence in the process.
Critics have long argued that Iowa's caucus-goers are too white, old, and small-town to fairly represent America. "It's always a question in every cycle," said former Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
Iowa is 91 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. That's even whiter than 85-percent-white Minnesota. The United States as a whole is 72 percent white, with a robust and growing mix of black, Hispanic, Asian and other ethnicities making up the other 28 percent. Iowa's largest minority group is a 5 percent Hispanic population, much of it employed in the state's meat-packing and food industry.
The state's rural character recently prompted another big name candidate, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, to take himself out of contention. Citing his opposition to ethanol subsidies -- a mainstay in corn-rich Iowa -- Huntsman told the Associated Press, "I'm not competing in Iowa for a reason."
The state got another black eye recently when a conservative religious group got Bachmann to sign a "marriage pledge" with a reference to the strength of black slave families.
Other top candidates, including Pawlenty, declined to sign on, and the slavery reference was dropped. But the episode had some Iowa Republicans wringing their hands about the image of their party.
"It confirms the notion that people in the national media want to write about," said Craig Robinson, political director of the Iowa Republican Party during the 2008 caucuses. Robinson, who edits the Iowa Republican, the state's largest conservative news site, said a recent poll showed that Republican caucus-goers are interested in one thing above all else -- defeating President Obama in November of 2012.
"If people want to paint us as just running around talking about gay marriage and abortion, that's not true," Robinson said.
Another "myth" Robinson wants to bust is the perception that Iowa is too far right for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who leads the GOP pack in most national polls.
Romney famously won the Ames straw poll in 2007, but placed second to Mike Huckabee in the real event, the 2008 Iowa caucuses where national delegates were decided. This year, Romney has not actively campaigned in the state, but Robinson said that "Romney still has a lot of support here. Why? Because we think he might be the one who can beat Obama."
All in for Ames
Meanwhile, Bachmann and Pawlenty are putting their all into the Ames straw poll, which both regard as a vital stop in their campaigns for the Republican nomination.
Romney has indicated that he's saving his resources for a good showing in the February 2011 Iowa caucuses, as well as in the New Hampshire primary that follows. In skipping Ames, Romney follows in the footsteps of 2008 presidential candidate John McCain, who ignored the 2007 straw poll and finished a lackluster third, behind Huckabee and Romney in the Iowa caucuses. McCain went on to become his party's nominee.
Like it or not, political analysts say Iowa is likely to remain a key presidential proving ground, as it has been since the early 1970s. The Ames straw poll is essentially a GOP fundraiser where candidates entice supporters with free tickets, food, bus rides and entertainment, but Iowa remains the place where campaigns go to establish their credibility in the heartland.
Democrats like to note that whatever its shortcomings as a cross-section of America, Iowa put President Obama on a trajectory to win his party's nomination, giving him an early, crucial edge over then-rival Hillary Clinton.
"It is a very homogenous state, and it's not necessarily representative of the whole country," said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a black Minnesota Democrat. "But at the same time, they've done a decent job."
Democrats note that Obama, the nation's first black president, also won Iowa in the 2008 general election. "Iowa is absolutely in the swing-state category," said Sue Dvorsky, chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. "The independent vote is where we're at in Iowa."
In the end, defenders of the Iowa caucuses say their chief argument for being first in the nation is not their demographics, but their size. Like New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, Iowa is small enough to provide an even playing field for candidates willing to engage in the state's trademark retail politics. The alternative, they say, are the big-buck media blitzes needed to win big states like California, New York and Illinois.
"Any individual state that you pick to be more diverse is going to be so large that small-scale candidates without a lot of financial backing won't be able to compete," said Cary Covington, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "Or it's going to be a small state, in which case it's going to have its idiosyncrasies ."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.