Sioux City - A campaign crossroads?

By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in the Weekender, 08/19/04)

AP photo
President Bush receives a standing ovation from supporters as he speaks at a campaign rally at the Tyson Center, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004 in Sioux City.

A record crowd streamed into Sioux City's Tyson Events Center on Saturday afternoon to cheer on the Lone Star Texan that strode to the stage amid flashing lights and throaty cheers. Dressed in everyday shirtsleeves, he stood at a podium under a huge American flag to tell his audience - and they were clearly his audience - why he deserves another four years as President.

None of the invited guests in the Tyson Center disagreed with him. But the larger question might be "Why Sioux City?" In 150 years, no sitting President has felt the need to reach to campaign here for himself. So what are the dynamics this year that has made Sioux City a hot property on the game board of presidential politics?

Strategies changing in 2004
When the people behind the Bush and Kerry campaigns look at their Presidential game board, they see things much differently than the average voter. Winning the fight for "four more years" depends on finding the right combinations of states to reach the magic number in Electoral College votes. But nationally, a Time magazine poll says less than 44 percent of the people believe Bush deserves to be re-elected. That agrees with AP polls, which say 56 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track. That means some red states are slipping away from Bush across the country, but the strategists are busy identifying states that might be up for grabs on Kerry's list. Clearly, they think Iowa could be one of those states.

But as the poster said at Saturday's rally, Western Iowa is "Bush Country." It always votes Republican. So why did Bush stop here?

True, most of Iowa west of Des Moines votes Republican, much more like her neighbors to the west. But Woodbury and Monona counties have defied the regional thinking before, in 1988 and 1996. In 2000, Bush did carry Woodbury County, but it was very close.
But while he had the support of Siouxlanders, he lost Iowa by only 4,000 votes. He won Woodbury County by only 1,200. If he could drive up Republican numbers here and in the surrounding areas, it could pay great dividends - seven electoral votes moving to his column, and out of Kerry's pocket.

It is possible. Unlike the rest of the country, in Iowa 54 percent of all voters approve of how Bush is performing as President. And in Iowa, incumbency counts almost more than party. Though they are playing the low expectations game, the Bush campaign thinks it is entirely possible that Iowa will become a red state.

Unique geography
Sioux City's unique geography certainly offers another draw as well: the tri-state location, with major media outlets located in town, puts the news in Siouxland in front of eastern South Dakota and Nebraska voters as well as western Iowans. A Bush visit to Sioux City gets local coverage in eastern South Dakota, and Bush would love to see majority leader Tom Dashle, D-S.D., lose his race for the Senate this year.

Far more important is the coverage extending to eastern Nebraska. Democrat Matt Connealy threatens to take a previously Republican-held House seat there, and that would cost Bush an electoral vote. (Nebraska, unlike 48 of the other states, is not an "all or nothing" state for the Electoral College, meaning it splits up its votes. Maine is the only other state that uses this progressive system.)

What's one vote? As Al Gore learned in 2000, it only takes one vote to put you out of a job. Considering these factors, a stop in Sioux City looks to be a pretty savvy investment. 

Personal visits
Perhaps the biggest reason the candidates are stumping in Sioux City is because the voters are stumping the candidates. How do you reach people these days? Though the campaigns have plenty of money to buy advertising, voters don't respond to telemarketers, they ignore direct mail, and they aren't watching as much TV.

If you want their votes, you have to do it the old fashioned way - you have to go to where they live, and ask for their vote. Or, as we saw on Saturday, tell them personally what you think of your opponent. Since the Presidency does attract people, unlike advertising, a visit ensures the faithful will hear the message, and the sound bites will play on the news.

A new world
As George Bush continually reminds people, "everything changed on September 11." He's right. For many people who held a grudge over the 2000 election dispute, he only became the legitimate President with his handling of the unfolding events after the attack. So, despite presiding over more job losses than any President since Herbert Hoover, and seeing bigger business and investment scandals than any administration since Harding's, George Bush is still very much in the game for the run for President for 2004.  Any other President with his track record and approval ratings would be nearly certain of going down to defeat. But as FDR proved, Americans hesitate to "change horses in midstream" during wartime. That translates to a battle in places you would not expect to see major candidates - places like Sioux City, Iowa.

As the numbers look now, Bush could truly need Iowa's seven Electoral College votes to win in November. His appearance in Sioux City shows that the man once ribbed for his struggles with the English language has become a much better speaker than he was four years ago. He does an excellent job connecting with "his people," as he calls them. And he is not hesitant to throw haymakers against his opponent. The debates will be an experience, and it might be a surprise. But it likely won't be pleasant.

There is much more fight left in this election. Expect the intensity - and the attacks - to escalate, not diminish. And expect to see more of the candidates in a town near you.

A former City Councilperson in South Sioux City, Gifford served as political commentator for Clear Channel radio station KMNS in Sioux City, Iowa from 2004 to 2005, and has written articles and essays for local, regional and national magazines over the past 10 years.

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