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Iowa's 20-something foot soldiers: for former student-council geeks, the caucuses on January 19 are the place to be.

When Allison Stuntz traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to spend a weekend knocking on doors for Howard Dean, she was surprised to find that the campaign felt more like a student-government election than a presidential one.

"It was inspiring to see that it was people my age who were running the show," says Stuntz, 23, who had been working as a waitress and freelance writer in Austin, Texas. After volunteering, she applied for and was offered a job on the Dean campaign.

Campaign workers for the presidential candidates actively contesting the Iowa caucuses are bonded by common denominators like nights on air mattresses, meals of cold pizza, and long hours selling their candidates door-to-door. Overwhelmingly young, they are the frontline troops in the first major test of the 2004 presidential election.

Iowa Democrats will meet at the local precinct level on January 19 to decide whom to support. With a small number of people determining the winner, the caucuses require grassroots organizing and face time with candidates. That makes Iowa one of the hottest places to be for ambitious young Democrats hoping for a rule in a real-life version of The West Wing.

"Iowa tells the rest of the nation who could and who should be President," says Jeffery Winmill, 25, a field organizer for Senator John Kerry.

That may overstate the case slightly. The actual number of delegates the state will send to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July is small (56 out of about 4,300). More rural than many other states, Iowa is hardly representative of the nation at large.


Yet the caucuses remain important. This year's seven candidates (Senator Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark are skipping Iowa) are the most since 1988, when seven Democrats and six Republicans competed.

So fresh college graduates show up to volunteer, and national campaign workers request transfers to Des Moines. "Iowa is a state that launches people's careers," says Brad Anderson, 28, a researcher for Senator John Edwards.

After Iowa, some campaign workers may find themselves jobless, if their candidates fare poorly. Or maybe they'll just sign on with another candidate.



* Why do you think the results of early political contests like that in Iowa have so much influence on the campaign?

* Could you see yourself as a presidential campaign staffer in a few years?

* What about this article most surprised you about presidential campaigns?


To help students understand a key element in the presidential campaign process, in this case the Iowa caucuses that so heavily influence the selection of presidential candidates.


CRITICAL THINKING: The article reports that today's Iowa campaign system requires "grassroots organizing and face time" with candidates. Ask students which system makes a better contribution to voter understanding of the candidates and the issues--"face time" or TV campaigns. (Tell students that in recent weeks Iowans too have been the targets of hundreds of televised political advertisements.)

Could a grassroots system like that in Iowa (or New Hampshire, for example) work in states like California or Texas? Ask students to identify and discuss a few pros and cons of both face-to-face campaigning and the mass exposure that is possible via radio and television advertisements.

RATING THE CAUCUSES: Next, address the caucus process itself. The article notes that, unlike primaries, in which citizens go to the polls and vote, caucuses rely on a small number of people at the precinct level to pick delegates who are pledged to support particular presidential candidates. Direct students' attention to the observation of Jeffery Winmill, a field organizer for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry: "Iowa tells the rest of the nation who could and who should be President." Ask: Why do candidates who do poorly in the Iowa caucuses tend to lose support in other states?

TARGETING THE ISSUES: Note that Iowa, in many ways a largely rural state, is not representative of the nation. Tell students that, in spite of this, candidates must demonstrate an understanding of Iowa's agricultural economy. Should candidates be required to know the specifics of every state's economy and other issues? Should a general understanding of the nation's economic and other problems be sufficient?

WEB WATCH: For a brief history of the Iowa caucuses, go to

Jennifer 8. Lee is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The New York Times (Lee says the number "8" is a good luck in Chinese culture.)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Lee, Jennifer 8.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 12, 2004
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