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Swing States Eye Trickle-Down Impact of Presidential Politics

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Swing States Eye Trickle-Down Impact of Presidential Politics

WBEZ/Ben Calhoun

We are continuing today Chicago Public Radio's road trip though Midwestern swing states. We catch up with reporters Ben Calhoun and Robert Wildeboer in central Iowa.This past January, the Iowa caucuses sparked an avalanche of voter registration. Chicago Public Radio's Ben Calhoun reports on how this year's presidential election is changing the dynamics of some local races.

For years, the state of Iowa has had more registered Republicans than Democrats. Then came this year's caucuses.

MAURO: Well we had record turn out this year, both on the Democratic side and the Republican side.

Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro says—for those who don't know, in order to caucus people had to do one thing.

MAURO: In order to attend the caucus, you had to come and you had to declare a party.

With record breaking attendance at the caucuses—that meant a record-breaking number of people registering with the two parties. Eight year ago, there were about 125,000 more registered Republican than Democrats in Iowa. In 2004, that gap shrunk, but the balance stayed in the Republican favor. This year's caucuses tilted that balance—and tilted it in a huge way—leaving nearly 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Mauro says, for candidates down the ballot, those rolls are a tool that can that can be exploited.

MAURO: It gives you some people that you can go out and try to identify. You can work those particular areas and say you're running for this office, we'd appreciated your support. And you get to make your case with them. And it's like anything else, when you're running for office, you're trying to identify voters—you're trying to identify customers if you run a business. You're trying to get those customers to come to your store. And you're trying to get them to come to the store on November 4th for the election.
CALHOUN: It gives you doors to knock on and addresses for direct mail.
MAURO: Yes. It gives you a base to work.

On a recent afternoon, Becky Mollencamp and Scott Thebeau are volunteering for the Obama campaign in the western suburbs of Des Moines. The couple is also trying to persuade voters for to vote for a business woman named Becky Greenwald—who's a Democrat running for Congress in Iowa's 4th Congressional district.

THEBEAU: You know Becky Greenwald, she's running against Tom Latham for US Congress.

Iowa's 4th Congressional District spreads from the areas west of Des Moines up across rural expanses of northern central Iowa. It's also one of the place where following the caucuses—there are suddenly more registered Democrats than Republicans. As she walks from house to house, volunteer Becky Mollencamp says she hopes that helps candidates like Becky Greenwald.

MOLLENCAMP: When you get to your ballot, you're probably going to vote president, but you're probably going to go ahead and vote on the rest of the candidates that are on that ballot. So I think if people have been thinking, “maybe I'm going to vote for Obama.” Maybe they're going to be more likely to vote for other Democrats.

In some ways Becky Greenwald's candidacy is still a bit of a longshot. She's up against a Republican incumbent Congressman Tom Latham, who's campaign has a lot more money than hers. Volunteer Scott Thebeau says he also thinks Greenwald will benefit from Obama's organization in Iowa, which was established for the caucuses, but is also helping local candidates this fall.

THEBEAU: Back in 04, you know the Kerry headquarters, I was always interested in the local elections and so forth. I wanted information about them and to be canvassing for them. They didn't have any desire to help the local people. That's a huge difference between what they're doing now and what Kerry did in 04.

More registered Democrats, grassroots help from the Obama campaign—seems huge boost for candidates like Greenwald but others say, not necessarily.

CARSTENSEN: Iowa is a heartland populist state. We vote for the person not the party label. We're very famous for splitting our votes up and down the ballot.

James Carstensen is a spokesperson for Iowa Congressman Tom Latham, who Becky Greenwald is running against. Carstensen says Iowa also has a lot of independents—and people willing to vote across party lines, which makes it less likely that success at the top of the ticket will trickle down.

CARSTENSEN: We're finding in a lot of our calls to independent voters in our district, that if they are an Obama supporter, that they also are coming down the ticket and supporting Congressman Latham.

Regardless of whether Carstensen is right about the Iowa's 4th Congressional District race—his argument raises an interesting point. Figuring out how a presidential race will affect others is a complicated game of speculation—and it's different in different places. And in this historic election year—when race and gender play a unique role—that question only gets more complicated, especially in the hard fought swing state like many across the Midwest.

On the road, I'm Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio.

Photos from Iowa
Robert and Ben talk about the tour

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