Put the blame on Iowa

Having grown up in Iowa (please don’t hold that against me), I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to the Iowa Caucus, and I’m convinced this turned me into the political junkie that I am today. It was there in 1976 that Jimmy Carter first caught fire as a candidate and caught a wave of post-Watergate sentiment and rode it to Washington.

Four years later, it was in Iowa where a little-known former CIA Director named George H.W. Bush beat expectations and defeated a crowded field including the eventual ticket-topper Ronald Reagan. (As a side note, it’s notable that Bush lost the Iowa caucus - actually coming in third place behind Dole and Pat Robertson (!)- in 1988 on his way to the nomination).

I’ll always be thankful that I was fortunate enough as a child to have teachers who discussed the campaign and the election process in class, and lucky to have parents who encouraged my interest and answered the many questions I would throw their way.

One of my most vivid memories was attending our neighborhood caucus in 1980 at Valley High School in West Des Moines where we were joined by one of Bush’s sons — George W. — a meeting that, of course, took on much greater significance 20 years later.

My eventual career path in journalism and professional communications was also heavily influenced by my exposure to the Iowa caucuses. My family subscribed to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Des Moines Register (and the Tribune, its evening counterpart), so I was treated to the latest caucus news on a daily basis. Television and radio stations in Des Moines were also full of ads, feature stories and interviews with the candidates, so much so that it felt like they were running for office in Iowa, rather than nationally.

Needless to say, at this impressionable age, it was exciting for me to feel like I was living at the center of the American political process every four years, and that my little state in the middle of the country actually played a pivotal role.

As I now watch the Iowa caucuses play out some 36 years after leaving my home state, it seems like Iowa has grown even more important than ever. Prospective candidates now come to the Hawkeye State as many as three years before votes are cast to test the waters, generate media attention, and try out potential stump material. And technology has evolved to the point where the nation can keep much closer track of each hopeful’s schedules and stops in such remote locations as Keokuk, Lamoni, Bettendorf and Newton.

Without question, this year has been a spectacle unlike any other. Perhaps no previous lead-up to the Iowa caucus has been busier or more contentious than this one — on both sides of the aisle. The Republican race has had as many as 17 candidates running, forcing networks to have two separate debates on the same night. And with the entrance of billionaire Donald Trump — all conventional wisdom about who will win (remember when Jeb Bush was inevitable?) has been tossed out the window, much to the delight of the media and late-night talk show hosts.

Similarly, the Democrats have also put on quite a show starring Hillary Clinton, who, in case you didn’t know, would become the first woman president (and did we mention she was once the First Lady?), Bernie Sanders — a self-avowed socialist who has attracted huge crowds full of voters 50 years his junior, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who, in any other year, would be leading the pack due to his executive experience, enthusiasm and winning smile.

I’ll always be proud that my life started out in Iowa and introduced me to this truly American experience. And as much as modern politics is a messy business that often produces questionable results, I can’t think of a better place for it all to begin than Iowa.

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