Salena Zito
GLIDDEN, Iowa – William J. Clinton and three other locals – Tim, Jeff and Jack, who declined to give their last names – sat at the Dairy Mart lunch counter, a Carroll County roadside staple on the Lincoln Highway for more than 60 years.

Besides sharing names, Clinton said, he has only one other thing in common with America’s 42nd president: “We are both from the South and both Democrats.”

He and his three lunch-counter buddies voiced displeasure with America’s direction today.

“Let me tell you something,” Clinton said. “It takes more than pretty words to run the country. I was fooled once by the president, I am not going to be fooled again.”

One by one, all four men admitted they are Democrats, voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and, in the words of Clinton, “cannot wait till election day to vote for Romney.”

“You guys have it all wrong,” said Mike Johnson from behind the counter, where he cooked up four orders of pork tenderloin sandwiches. With oil sizzling as he dropped breaded filets into a large cast-iron pan, he insisted that “Obama's a nice guy, I’m voting for him again” – to a collective groan from his customers.

Johnson’s father built this red-and-white-checked ice cream shack in the 1950s, complete with something incredibly innovative for its time – a drive-thru window to entice families using the coast-to-coast highway for great American road trips.

He admitted that he has “no solid reason” to support Obama again, adding: “I guess I just don't want him to fail.”

“Fail? Hell, he did that a long time ago,” said Tim, who owns a small business down the road.

Iowa is tight right now, according to Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt.

“Not leaning, but a complete toss-up,” Schmidt said.

In 2008, Iowa put Obama on the political map by kicking off his string of caucus and primary victories. It followed that with an easy Obama win over Republican John McCain in the fall.

Today, Democrats across the state feel the same disillusionment articulated by the lunch-counter quartet at Johnson’s Dairy Mart.

More than 500 miles of crisscrossing Iowa uncovered scores of Hawkeye Democrats who are unhappy with the country’s direction and with the White House under Obama.

Winery owner John Guinan said he “wanted to put a sign outside that said, ‘I can’t wait to vote,’ but I thought it was a bit over the top.”

Five years ago, Guinan and his wife, Rose, transformed an old Ford assembly plant-turned-auto dealership into the enchanting Santa Maria winery, with stone courtyards and a restaurant that offer the feel of Tuscany. Guinan said it is “the third largest winery in the state.”

He admitted his passion to vote for Mitt Romney didn’t exist until Romney picked Paul Ryan as a running mate: “Right then and there, he had my vote. Ryan is very bright, very capable, and understands the serious problems facing the finances of our country.”

The small businessman, who employs more than 70 in the town of Carroll, found Obama's “you didn’t build that” comment to be “galling, but not surprising. It is reflective of the concern I had about him on the front-end,” referring to the value that Obama puts on government over individuals.

Obama still could win this state’s five electoral votes by galvanizing young people, by aggressively promoting the farm bill now before Congress, and by playing “Mediscare” with seniors, Iowa State’s Schmidt said. “But social issues could mobilize Republicans and pull over enough … independents to give Romney the edge.”

Along the Lincoln Highway between Council Bluffs and Davenport, most cornfields are leveled due to drought-provoked early harvests; marching bands practice on high school football fields alongside players scrimmaging without pads for the big Friday-night game.

And Mike Johnson gives a big “How ya doing?” to another customer who pulls his pickup truck up to the Dairy Mart’s drive-thru window. “You don't want to come in here today, Bill, they’re talking politics,” Johnson tells the regular.

“Well, as long as no one is voting Obama, I’m fine,” Bill replies.

Johnson sighs deeply, rolls his eyes and reaches for a cone to top off with homemade, freshly whipped cherry ice cream.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.