Political experts explain why Iowa has become so valuable in the presidential race

AMES, Iowa -- President Obama will speak at Iowa State University Tuesday, just two weeks after he made another three-day bus tour through Iowa. Meanwhile, his presumed GOP opponent in the presidential race, Mitt Romney, was also back in Bettendorf last week -- just two weeks after his last Iowa visit.

Iowans are used to that kind of attention during the caucuses, but not during the general election. So what gives?

Some Iowa State University political experts say it's because Iowa -- and its six electoral votes -- may actually make the difference come Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 6).

Steffen Schmidt

Steffen Schmidt

"You've got to really face the fact that the election is so close," said Steffen Schmidt, a University Professor of political science at ISU. "The polls suggest that the number of places Obama or Romney can pick up electoral votes to get over the top are limited. Most states are already wrapped up. So when you reduce the number of states down to where a victory would make a difference, six electoral votes could easily mean the difference between winning and losing. That makes Iowa crucial."

Iowa is politically purple

Dave Peterson, interim director of Iowa State's Harkin Institute of Public Policy and associate professor of political science, has a slightly different take on Iowa's importance.

Dave Peterson

Dave Peterson

 "The short answer is that Iowa is a state that has demonstrated it can go either way," Peterson said. "In 2008 we voted for Obama. In 2010 we made a move to the right. Our Senators are split by party and our House delegation is pretty evenly split. We are one of the most purple states in the country. The polls have the public pretty well divided. In this election, there are only a handful of states that are as close as we are."

 Peterson points out that Nate Silver estimates that Iowa is the eighth most likely state to be the "tipping point" in the presidential election -- or the state that is the one that decides the election. Silver also ranks Iowa fourth in his estimate of "return on investment," which gets at how important the decisions of individual voters are to deciding the outcome.

 "In other words, we are getting lots of attention because if the election is going to come down to a single state, or to a small number of voters in a state, Iowa is somewhat likely to be that state," Peterson said.

James McCormick

James McCormick

James McCormick, professor and chair of political science at Iowa State, agrees that Iowa could make the difference this fall. He also says that the Obama campaign probably has internal polling to indicate that the Iowa outcome is very close and that President Obama's personal involvement may turn the tide.

 "I also believe that the Obama campaign anticipates that success in Iowa is dependent upon getting its supporters to the polls, including independents," McCormick said. "Hence, the continuous effort in Iowa is to gin up some enthusiasm. 

 "Finally, and the Obama campaign is no doubt aware of this fact, the number of Republican identifiers in Iowa now surpasses Democratic identifiers -- even though independents remain the largest overall group in the state," he continued. 

Getting unprecedented attention

Regardless of the reasons, Iowa is getting unprecedented attention during this presidential election.

"I've never seen a sitting president come to Iowa to campaign as many times as Obama has come here. It's extraordinary," said Schmidt, who has been studying Iowa politics for 40 years.

"This attention is unprecedented only in the sense that Iowa is not a large electoral vote state (6 electors)," McCormick added. "You normally see such attention to the more populous electoral states (e.g., Ohio, Florida). The attention for Iowa reinforces the view that the Obama campaign sees the potential Electoral College vote as close. Thus, every electoral vote counts!"

And along with all the attention has come a seemingly endless supply of political advertisements across the Iowa airwaves.

"They are spending so much money here because they have so much money to spend," said Peterson, who has studied how voters develop an image of a candidate. "This campaign is going to blow past all previous records for spending. In the past (think 2004), this time of year was a downtime for advertising. Kerry was trying to marshal his resources for the general election. Obama and Romney don’t face the same kind of constraints and are free to spend these tremendous amounts now."

"I have never seen more negative political ads in such volume consuming every inch of superfluous television space," Schmidt added. "Every single minute of network and cable television has been bought by Republicans, Democrats or Super PACs to flood Iowa with almost an intolerable amount of political advertising. Everyone is disgusted, along with the press, by the amount of negative advertising. And all of this advertising is wasted money because it isn't very effective and it's all about turnout."