My Failure as an Iowa Political Pundit

Ho, hum, Iowans are back to watching winter storm fronts move in on the TV, the Chicago Board of Trade, Iowa and Iowa State basketball, and at times the state legislature. The candidates are gone, and with them the madding crowds of groupies and pundits.

I did not go with them as a troubador pundit, because it turned out I was an abject failure at that dismal science.

First, I got all fired up over Dick Gephardt. Trade union stalwart from Missouri, just down the road. An organization man. Won it before in 1988. Iowa's sixth congressman ever since. Friend of the farmer and the auto worker, and one helluva nice guy. Honest, sincere, takes the time to talk with you one on one.

We predicted in our little weekly paper that Gephardt would win because he was darn near a favorite son. Our paper endorsed him three or four times. He visited Storm Lake, a Republican stronghold with a small college, twice. His strategy was to turn out the trade union folks in eastern Iowa, and carry our congressional district in western Iowa by virtue of his populist farm background.

Gephardt was wrong, and so was I. When I showed up at the Chautauqua Park shelterhouse to caucus with 61 of my neighbors, the only other person sitting under the Gephardt sign was big brother John. Whoa, what happened here? Surely our pals would show up.

They didn't.

John always likes the last candidate he heard. John Edwards had just rolled through Storm Lake a day after being endorsed by the Des Moines Register. He was hot. He talked like a Southern Baptist preacher. He talked up his humble roots, and his passion for the little guy. We believed him. Plus, his sign was right next to Gephardt's, so we didn't have to give up good seats. So we threw in with Edwards.

My other big failure at punditry: Sen. Tom Harkin, patron saint of Iowa Demcrats, endorsed Howard Dean. So did Berkley Bedell, my favorite politician of all time, who is Northwest Iowa's former congressman. Gee, I thought: With Tom Harkin and Berkley Bedell on board, Dean is gonna win this thing in a walk. Further evidence came when Dean showed up, just a week before Edwards, and flipped pancakes to a crowd of some 500 people. Remember, time was when you could hold a Buena Vista County Democratic Convention in a phone booth. Five hundred flap jackers for the Vermonter absolutely blew me away. He was a sure bet, I thought.

Wrong again.

Moral of the story, about which I am probably wrong again: Organization ain't all it's cracked up to be in the Iowa caucuses.

Moral number two, which I never subscribed to, but which illustrates how pinheaded pundits can be: They say that the Iowa caucuses are dominated by wild-eyed liberal activists. It just ain't so. John Kerry is not exactly Dennis Kucinich. He is rich, likes to talk about his fighting days in Vietnam, wears a blue suit at all times and is just to the left of Joe Lieberman. Turns out Iowans are a fairly discerning lot. They figure Kerry is electable because of his military record. The runner-up, Edwards, is telegenic and has that Southern drawl. Bill Clinton II type guy. Iowans moved to these two camps in just the week before the caucuses. They sat back, evaluated the alternatives, and surprised the nation.

It was a good show. As always, I am terribly proud of Iowa for its iconoclasm even when it makes me look foolish.

As for the next act, I am in no position to wager a bet.

But I did predict that the Iowa State Cyclones would beat the Iowa Hawkeyes in basketball. I will not predict the weather, other than to say that it will be brutal during the girls state basketball tournament in March.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa.

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