Secrets and a Shocker for Iowa Primary

Matt Towery

12/6/2007 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

"Listen. Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?"

No, it's not the lyrics to the famed Beatles song. This is deep politics and strategy.

What has seemed for so long to be a far-distant Iowa caucus is now about to arrive in less than a month.

First, the secrets. There are plenty of people who've worked in presidential campaigns, or who have deep knowledge of how the system works. For them, this will not come as a great surprise, especially for those who are familiar with the old term "street money."

They'll know that street money was used primarily in Southern or big-city elections in the past. Maybe it won't come as a surprise, either, that there has also been a more quietly kept tradition of "cash for a vote" in past Iowa contests.

Here's how it has worked in some instances: Potential voters were recruited by deep-pocketed campaigns, often from states other than Iowa. They were put on buses to be delivered to the appointed caucus locations.

While Iowa has taken measures to end the "invasion" of out-of-state participants in this year's caucus, it's unlikely that the use of "gratuities" by at least one or two campaigns will come to an end.

Is there proof positive, a smoking gun or a photo of $100 exchanging hands for any voter's participation? Absolutely not. But then again, there has never been that same evidence for the widely accepted fact that payment of voters in the Southern and big-city races has taken place. But it has.

The real problem this go-round is that some of the big-money candidates have squandered their cash. One wonders whether their campaigns, or their friends, have managed to hold on to enough loot to provide the presents and gratuities necessary to pull otherwise uninterested voters out of their homes, to force them to remain locked in some community center, where they must listen to advocates for candidates and remain firmly entrenched in the corner of the facility until their candidates' votes are finally counted.

And, of course, those buses are less likely this time to be carrying any shipment of "Iowans" who just happen to reside outside the state. In other words, it may well be that just as "street money" is a dying tradition in the South, its Midwestern equivalent is dying off as well.

Let me make it clear: This past practice was not limited to one political party. More importantly, those in the know in Iowa plan to be on high alert for indications of gratuity incentives that might be used to increase voter turnout in January.

And that brings me to what I increasingly believe will be the "shocker" in the Iowa caucus. Let me make it clear that my vague description of activities above has nothing to do with the prediction I'm about to make.

As I've written in prior columns, I find it hard to believe that massive numbers of voters returning from their New Year's celebrations -- in a state where it gets dark at 4:30 p.m. and is likely to be very cold -- will be compelled to leave the toasty confines of their homes and abandon watching the Orange Bowl game in order to vote in a caucus.

Under this theory, turnout will be impossible to predict. There are many theories that I've already explored about which candidates, of both major parties, might benefit from this quirky set of circumstances created by the move of the Iowa caucus to Jan. 3. But the one candidate I believe could benefit above all others will be GOP candidate Ron Paul. Iowa political insiders I've talked to agree.

After covering the public appearances of various presidential candidates on the Republican side, and even participating in the seemingly secure atmosphere of a post-debate media "spin room," I have been amazed at the zeal of Ron Paul supporters to appear in huge numbers.

What received little coverage out of last week's CNN-YouTube debate in Florida was that the biggest demonstration outside the hall was a parade of Paul supporters. Inside the spin room, where credentialed journalists and, now, bloggers are allowed to interview candidates and their surrogates, a seemingly unknown but large group of "reporters" surrounded Paul.

At a recent Rudy Giuliani rally, the Paul supporters virtually outnumbered the Giuliani crowd.

All of this tells me that what looks like 6 percent of the vote for Paul in states like Iowa could easily, especially where turnout is low, move toward double digits. From what my friends in Iowa are telling me, Huckabee or some other candidate may emerge the winner, but the big story that night may be that the contrarian Paul could find himself placing ahead of some really big names. Time will tell.