Race for the White House

Iowa Wracked by Indecision as Presidential Caucuses Near

Less than two months before the caucuses, voters say they still haven't settled on favorites.

Republicans Break 11th Commandment at Reagan Building

The crops have been harvested and snow has already fallen multiple times, signs in Iowa that it will soon be time to start the process of picking a new president—and begin winnowing the crowded Republican field.

Yet even after months of candidate visits and millions of dollars in campaign ads, many Iowa Republicans interviewed this week don't seem anywhere close to making their final decision, even though the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are less than two months away.

Conversations with more than a dozen likely voters at events featuring former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas also revealed that many don't expect to make their minds up for at least another month and that the economy still matters, even as foreign policy has become a bigger part of the discussion following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

The voters' uncertainty suggests the race remains highly fluid, with the outcome not as locked down as polling numbers might suggest. That's not unusual this far ahead of the caucuses. “Organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end,” is a favorite expression of the state's political strategists.

In a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus participants released on Nov. 24, real estate mogul Donald Trump led with 25 percent, followed by Cruz at 23 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 18 percent, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at 13 percent. Bush was at 4 percent, one point behind Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, with all others scoring even lower.

“There are a very high number of would-be caucus-goers who have yet to make up their mind,” said David Oman, a Bush strategist in Iowa who served as state co-chairman for Mitt Romney's 2011-2012 campaign. “I'm hoping people will take a second look, or perhaps a first look, at Jeb.”

Chart of Iowa presidential TV ad spots on broadcast stations

After seeing 11 of the Republican presidential candidates in person, Jerry Small said he remains undecided. 

“I wish I could make a hybrid and come up with a candidate that has all the good parts of each of them,” said Small at a Bush event in Waterloo on Tuesday afternoon. A retired department store sales manager, he's leaning toward Bush, Cruz, or Rubio.

Most of those interviewed said they've narrowed their choices to three (or so) candidates. Many said they don't like to commit too soon.

“This is the time to do a lot of listening,” said Wendy Weig, a musician who attended a county Republican Party event where Bush spoke Monday evening in Goose Lake, Iowa. “I don't like to lock in on anyone just yet because a lot of dirty stuff comes out at the end.”

While voters aren't expressing any sense of urgency, the candidates and their campaigns are feeling the press of time. A mid-December debate in Las Vegas will freeze the race for a couple days. That will be followed by a pause for the holidays in late December and a January sprint to the caucuses, held in schools, fire stations, and community centers across the state on the evening of Feb. 1.

The increased political intensity comes as Iowans should generally feel pretty good about their economic condition: Gas prices are below $2 a gallon. The state's unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, sixth-lowest in the nation. And farmers gathered what appears to be record corn and soybean crops, even if lower commodity prices are keeping them from a windfall.

Iowa's unemployment rate

Iowa's unemployment rate

Bloomberg

Those metrics, however, aren't lifting the moods of many of those interviewed.

“Here in Newton, it's really impossible to get a job that pays more than $14 an hour,” said Jerald Nelson, who works in a civilian role for the Iowa National Guard after retiring from the active military. “There's no horsepower in the economy. It feels like it's either flat or going backwards.”

Nelson was one of about 125 people who turned out one rainy evening this week to a shop classroom at a community college to listen to Bush make his pitch and then answer questions for more than 40 minutes.

After backing then-Texas Governor Rick Perry in the 2012 caucuses, Nelson said he's narrowed down his finalists to Bush, Rubio, and Carson. “I'd prefer a governor and Bush has a good record,” he said. “My concern is the media will just keep beating him down because he's a Bush.”

He isn't likely to make his decision anytime soon, and electability is a key consideration. “The way it's going now, it will probably be the week before,” Nelson said. “I like a lot of them, but it's about getting the most bang for the buck because we can't afford to lose to a Democrat.”

On the day Nelson saw him, Bush appeared at the same community college where Trump spoke less than two weeks earlier, drawing a crowd nearly three times as big. In a local reference Bush failed to make, Trump repeatedly mentioned the devastating 2007 closure of a Maytag Corp. factory that had served as a community anchor for high-paying jobs in a town that was once known as the washing machine capital of the world.

Bush offered policy positions far more nuanced and detailed than those from Trump. The session felt like a classroom discussion in sharp contrast to Trump's political revival meeting.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at a Dec. 1 town hall event in Newton, Iowa.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at a Dec. 1 town hall event in Newton, Iowa.

Photographer: John McCormick/Bloomberg

Even among crowds that turned out to see Bush this week—in Goose Lake and larger cities like Newton and Waterloo—it was hard to find anyone who said they were absolutely decided on supporting him.

That was also the case at events for Cruz, who polls show is gaining momentum in the state. The senator from Texas drew about 300 people in the eastern Iowa town of Bettendorf to attend an event on a cold, rainy Monday evening. Cars were parked on the grass and a neighboring street because the parking lot outside the reception hall was filled.

John Schaff, a semi-retired farmer from Camanche, Iowa, is another one of the many undecideds. Before hearing Cruz speak in the Mississippi River town of Clinton, he said he's also considering Carson. Asked when he would decide, Schaff said “the day before.”

Carole Doanne, a retired insurance agency worker from Newton, saw both Cruz and Bush in the span of a couple days this past week. She said she considers Cruz too “slick” to get her support. “I wasn't sold on him,” she said. “I don't like his personality.”

With the end of the caucus campaign drawing near, the candidates have begun to more formally ask for votes at the end of their appearances. The contrast between Cruz and Bush was stark.

Bush typically makes his request with just a few quick words, while Cruz drags his out for several minutes. He asks those in his audiences to not just turn out for him on Feb. 1, but also volunteer, call friends and family, and pray.

“It's going to be easier to stay at home by the fireplace,” Cruz said in Clinton, Iowa. “But I ask you to come and stand and caucus with us.”

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