Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

What do Lance Armstrong and the Jewish World Service have in common?

COMMENTARY | August 01, 2007

It’s not just the candidates that descend on Iowa, so do interest groups, some of which don’t often get a chance to buttonhole politicians. (One in an occasional series on the Iowa caucuses)

By Gilbert Cranberg

Presidential candidates converging on Iowa aren’t the only ones to sense opportunity. Interest groups across the political spectrum see Iowa as the place to meet, greet and lobby the candidates for one cause or another. Even the Des Moines Register wants to capitalize on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses to plug for an editorial position. The paper declared recently, “Iowans have the opportunity to play a special role in resolving the immigration crisis by pressing presidential candidates for solutions-oriented debate on the proposed reform legislation.”

Modify the language a bit, substitute an issue for immigration, and the appeals echo across Iowa. The other day it was Lance Armstrong making a full-page splash with an ad for back-to-back forums Aug. 27-28 for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in Cedar Rapids in a bid to force them to pay attention to cancer: “The 2008 presidential election will offer Americans a unique opportunity to push for a national strategy for fighting cancer. The LIVESTRONG Presidential Cancer Forum will provide an opportunity to detail their respective policy plans for fighting cancer, a disease that kills 560,000 Americans every year.”

Unless a candidate is prepared to endorse cancer this promises to be the least controversial event of the caucus campaign.

Whether the opportunity is “special” or “unique,” the interest groups do have the candidates where they want them: trolling for votes. The hope is that they can be induced to make on-the-record commitments to which they can be held.

Thus, a team of young people from Jewish World Service has been dispatched to Iowa to buttonhole the candidates on the three issues on their agenda: Darfur, AIDS and early universal childhood education. They say that persistent questioning by cohorts put John Edwards on record in support of a $50-billion five-year effort to fight AIDS.

Tactics vary. One outfit, www.Caucus4Priorities.org, distributes cookies at candidate appearances with the message on one side, “When candidates say what they will accomplish, ask 'How you will pay for it?' Tell them to cut Pentagon waste and create sensible budget priorities.” The other side of the cookie bears a colorful pie chart with the Pentagon taking up a big chunk of the pie.

AARP has joined with labor and business groups in a “Divided We Fail” campaign to “improve health care and financial security.” Campaign volunteers are difficult for the candidates to overlook when they show up at events wearing bright red “Divided We Fail” t-shirts and seat themselves prominently in front. AARP’s state president, John Hale, says, “Our vision is that each candidate visiting Iowa will hear the voices of AARP members...’

But so do the folks who believe “the 2008 campaign to change WAL-MART begins right now in Iowa,” and the “coalition of the United Steelworkers and America’s major steel companies” pressing “our presidential candidates to do more than just talk a good game and sit on their hands while China and other countries cheat on our trade laws with illegal subsidies, currency manipulation and dumping,” not to mention the inter-faith group that wants to know, “What civil rights would you ensure for people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender.”      

With all of that cacophony, you have to wonder if the messages cancel each other out and whether the candidates really listen. In any case, soon after the Jan. 14 caucuses, if not sooner, candidates will drop like flies and whatever promises they left in their wake may not be worth much. The head of one presidential campaign told me that, in any event, unless an interest group is willing to supply workers for a campaign effort, as an anti-tax group does, he pays little attention.

My own hunch is that attempts to piggy-back on the caucuses produce little lasting pay-back, but it’s probably too much to expect activist Iowans and others drawn here to squander their “unique opportunity” to bask in the political spotlight and not try to throw their weight around.

Earlier in this series: Hope and hokum in the heartland; Craziness in Ames is part of the Iowa caucuses.


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.