Up close with Iowa Republicans

The liberal media would have it that Republicans are old, white, and angry. To what extent was this stereotype borne out by the big Republican event at the Iowa state fairgrounds on Saturday?

The crowd certainly wasn’t young. Age 66, I was older than average, but hardly outside my age-comfort zone.

Nor was the crowd diverse. I saw only a handful of African-Americans and not many more Hispanics.

To be sure, Iowa isn’t all that racially and ethnically diverse. But Black and Hispanic representation at the Republican event was well below what I saw walking the streets of Des Moines during my two-day stay.

When we get to “angry,” though, the stereotype did not hold. The folks I talked to were concerned and in some instances dismayed by the course this country has taken under President Obama. But expressions of anger were few and far between.

To better assess the crowd’s anger level, I listened carefully to what the candidates had to say. Ten skilled politicians have been speaking to Republicans throughout Iowa for months. Have they concluded that the best way to appeal to them is through an angry message?

With the exception of Bobby Jindal (“the idea of America is slipping away”), they have not. Rand Paul talked about the need for the GOP to broaden its appeal. Marco Rubio talked about the need for a new generation of leaders and how he wants to be the “vocational education” president.

Mike Huckabee talked about the need to fight chronic diseases and he told some jokes. Lindsey Graham told more jokes than Huckabee and talked about the need to defeat ISIS and fix social security.

Jeb Bush said that “everyone is an asset in this country” and talked about his “servant’s heart.” Carly Fiorina talked about how well she would do in a debate against Hillary Clinton and she criticized crony capitalism. Rick Santorum reminisced about his electoral and legislative successes of the past.

How about Ted Cruz? The noted firebrand poked fun at the CNBC debate moderators and discussed his tax reform plan.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump skipped the event. He might well have pitched anger, but it’s far from clear to me that it would have gone over particularly well.

Trump rose to prominence in this race by talking about illegal immigration. At this point, however, the subject doesn’t seem to preoccupy Iowa Republicans. I don’t recall it being mentioned in any speech. Chris Christie took at least an hour and a half of questions when you combine his appearances in Council Bluffs and Des Moines. Not one pertained to immigration.

Evangelicals are said to be quite prominent among Iowa caucus-goers, and I don’t doubt that this is so. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that religious considerations dominant their preference in candidates.

Most of the candidates who spoke on Saturday did not discuss God. Huckabee was the main exception, but did not dwell on the subject. Cruz spoke about substantive issues pertaining to religious liberty. Jindal spoke about the need for a “spiritual revival.” Planned Parenthood came up in several speeches, but was not a major talking point.

The Iowa Republican voters I spoke with aren’t very different from the Republicans I encounter in the east and on the internet. They like Ted Cruz but wonder whether he’s too strident to win in November. They like Jeb Bush but wonder whether he’s strident enough.

They like Marco Rubio, but not his past stance on immigration reform. They like Chris Christie, but not his embrace of President Obama on the eve of the 2012 election. They like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, but think their time has passed. They haven’t warmed to Rand Paul but have, somewhat, to Carly Fiorina. And so forth.

Iowa Republicans very much like going first in the nomination process, and the party leaders who spoke on Saturday are obsessed with maintaining that status.

Personally, I don’t believe that any one state should get to go first. I’d like to see an opening day consisting of four or five states representing a cross-section of the country.

But if any state is going to get to go first, I come away thinking that Iowa, lacking in diversity though it may be, is as good as any and better than most.