US presidential hopefuls keep eagle eye on Hawkeye State

By most measures, Iowa is like any other mid-western state in the United States. It has a predominantly white, lower middle-class population and an economy dominated by agriculture and manufacturing.

Yet, over the course of campaigning for the mid-term polls - general elections that take place two years into a presidential term - nearly everyone who is anyone in US politics has stopped here.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, former presidential candidate John McCain and former president Bill Clinton have turned up in recent weeks, as well as nearly every potential 2016 presidential hopeful.

Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal came to stump for the Republican candidate, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton campaigned for the Democrat.

And while former Florida governor Jeb Bush has yet to set foot here, he has already made an impact. This week, a fundraising letter signed by him has been circulating in the state that sounded more like a pitch for his education policy than a call for donations.

While the Hawkeye State, as Iowa is also known, is no stranger to political attention, the stakes are higher this time.

Iowa has one of the tightest races at the mid-terms - a race that could determine who controls the Senate and the agenda President Barack Obama will pursue in the final years of his term. The state has not had an open race for a Senate seat since 1985. Until Democrat Tom Harkin stepped down this year, both Iowa senators had held their seats for over three decades. The second seat is up for election in 2016. The candidates battling to replace Mr Harkin are Ms Joni Ernst (Republican) and Mr Bruce Braley (Democrat).

That adds to the special status Iowa already has as the first state to hold caucuses for parties looking to select their presidential nominee. This state can make or break a candidate, and who turns up in the state can often give an early sense of what the presidential field will be like in two years.

Little surprise then that campaign money has been pouring in. As of Oct 15, more than 57,000 ads have aired for Senate candidates in the state alone, totalling some US$30 million (S$38 million) spent.

"I think I have seen every single one of them," says Ms Tamara Fitzgerald, 53, a factory worker.

"We have about two million voters so that is an illogical amount. Although once those political ads go, we will be back to pesticide ads."

Perhaps as a result of being at the epicentre of political attention during presidential polls, Iowans are always talking about politics.

In the week before the mid- terms on Tuesday, there is a buzz in the air. Many houses have signs on their lawn indicating their support and hundreds like Ms Fitzgerald think nothing of taking the day off from work to attend an election rally. Some 400 queue up patiently outside Cedar Rapids to catch a glimpse of Mrs Clinton stopping by.

To try and increase voter turnout, election officials have set up pop-up polling booths all over town to capture early votes. In the public library, for instance, a handful of polling booths have been set up between the lifts and the new non-fiction book section.

As in previous polls, bread and butter issues are likely to prevail, along with dissatisfaction over Mr Obama's leadership.

The President has largely steered clear of tight Senate races, given his very low approval rating. On Thursday, he campaigned in Maine for the incumbent Democratic governor. But the visit was overshadowed by a disagreement between the states and Washington over how to treat health workers returning from African countries affected by Ebola.

Though economic growth figures have been improving - gross domestic product growth exceeded expectations in the third quarter by expanding 3.5 per cent - most Americans say they are not yet feeling the recovery.

Nearly all pundits are predicting a strong Republican showing as it has numerous advantages. Voter turnout is likely to be below 40 per cent around the country, with a larger proportion of older, white voters - a demographic that tends to favour Republicans. Historically, mid-terms have also tended to swing against whichever party holds the White House.

Dr Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that while the Republicans will make gains, there will not be a "wave election" of the sort that saw right-wing Tea Party activists sweep a large number of seats in 2010: "The favourability ratings of the Republican Party are at least 10 percentage points lower than those of the Democratic Party, and the Congress as a whole has 12 per cent approval ratings.

It's a combination of a general disgust with how things are going and the public distemper at a time that there's a Democrat in the White House."

I think I have seen every single one of them. We have about two million voters so that is an illogical amount. - Ms Tamara Fitzgerald, on the ad blitz. As of Oct 15, more than 57,000 ads have aired for Senate candidates.

5 talking points

1 Who takes the Senate?

If Republicans pick up six Senate seats now held by Democrats, they will take over the Senate and have a majority in both Houses of Congress for the first time since President Barack Obama came to power. Polls have Republicans winning in 47 seats in the 100-member Senate and being slightly ahead or close in eight other races.

2 How soon will results be out?

The Georgia and Louisiana races involve three-cornered fights and both states require any winner to gain at least 50 per cent of the vote. If that does not happen, Louisiana will hold a run-off on Dec 6 and Georgia a month later. If control of Congress is in the balance, it might be the new year before that is resolved.

3 The role of independents

The thin margins in the Senate leave open the possibility that independents might tip the balance. Independent candidate Greg Orman is currently in a close race against Republican Pat Roberts in Kansas. If he wins, he may try to convince the three other independents in the Senate to join forces.

4 What will turnout be like?

Nationwide, interest in these elections has been low. TV news has kept coverage to a minimum and most expect below-normal voter turnouts.

5 Who is in a good position for 2016?

Many 2016 presidential hopefuls have spent this campaign cycle laying a groundwork and building allies. How well the candidates whom they back do could indicate the strength of their bids for the presidency.

This article was first published on Nov 01, 2014.
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