- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

CLIVE, Iowa — Iowa is whiter, more rural and older than much of the rest of the U.S., but the small, middle-America state has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep a firm hold on its special claim as the first state to vote in presidential contests.

Iowa first won its first-in-the-nation status in 1972 when a quirk in Democratic Party rules leapfrogged it ahead of the New Hampshire primary, which had been the first state to vote in the nominating process since 1920.

Ever since, candidates have spent an inordinate amount of early campaigning crisscrossing the state’s seemingly endless miles of farmland and 99 counties, popping into coffeehouses and mom-and-pop family restaurants, to win over voters one by one.

But is its first-in-the-nation position truly justified?

Iowans are all too familiar with the questions, and their usually polite, good-natured reputations may prevent them from waving them off with snarky responses.

“I think it’s important. Any state would think it’s important to have a first-in-the-nation chance to influence the election,” said Mary Jane Kolars, 61, who was waiting for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to speak at the Junction City Bar and Grill in Marshalltown. “But we’ve made the effort to keep it.”

Mrs. Kolars, who said she will vote Tuesday for former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also thinks Iowans are uniquely suited to vet the candidates.

“I think Iowans are the down-to-earth people of the nation, the sort of salt-of-the-earth people who would do anything for you,” she said. “We just have different values and different ways to look at people. We’re farm communities with family values. … It’s very different than the big cities and the coasts.”

Candidates such as Mr. Santorum count on Iowans taking their votes seriously. Unlike his opponents, Mr. Santorum never experienced a surge during the fall and remained mired at the bottom of the polls until about a week ago.

Now, as more voters pay attention, he is getting the surge he said he always knew would come. It’s Iowa’s turn to “provide leadership,” he said.

“Do not defer your judgment to national polls or to pundits who don’t come to these things, who haven’t come to my town-hall meetings,” he said. “These pundits, all they do is talk to each other. They don’t talk to the candidates. You have.”

Political analysts outside the state often highlight the fact that the Iowa caucuses, particularly on the Republican side, are simply a straw poll. The delegates are awarded later this year at county conventions.

In 2008, fewer than 120,000 people turned out for the Republican caucuses, meaning the first decision on winnowing down the party’s field was made by less than 0.05 percent of the U.S. population.

By contrast, New Hampshire awards delegates in the first primary and in 2008 drew twice as many voters — despite having less than half of Iowa’s population.

The Iowa caucuses also have only about a 50 percent success rate when it comes to predicting the nominee: Only roughly half the winners in Iowa go on to win their party’s nomination for president.

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