[an error occurred while processing this directive] By TIM NICKENS, Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2000
DES MOINES, Iowa -- After spending nearly a week roaming around here, some questions remain unanswered.
How are you supposed to take shortcuts, since roads through the outlying farmland seem to run only north and south or east and west?
Why are some ice cream stands closed for the winter but swimsuit shops still advertise on television?
What will we learn from Monday's overrated Iowa caucuses, since everyone is confident they know who will win?
Ask any campaign aide, any independent observer.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush will handily win the Republican caucus. Vice President Al Gore will easily defeat Bill Bradley in the Democratic caucuses.
The opinion polls back up the prognosticators.
A Los Angeles Times poll of likely caucusgoers this week shows Gore leading Bradley 58 percent to 35 percent. Among the Republicans, Bush is at 43 percent, Steve Forbes, 25 percent; Alan Keyes, 10 percent; John McCain, 8 percent; Gary Bauer, 7 percent; Orrin Hatch, 1 percent.
The caucuses are not about winning. They are about expectations. They are about perceptions and spin.
Bush would count 43 percent as a solid victory. His opponents counter the Texas governor is vulnerable if he gets anything less.
Forbes will argue that he has become the logical alternative to Bush with a strong second-place showing. Campaign manager William Dal Col said the campaign's polls show Forbes at between 26 percent and 28 percent.
"We expect to be a solid second," he said.
If Forbes, who has invested heavily in a grass-roots organization here, hits 30 percent, he will be hailed as a viable challenger.
Never mind that McCain, the Arizona senator, did nothing in Iowa but participate in two debates and leads Bush in New Hampshire.
The Bradley campaign, after investing considerable time and money in Iowa, has set its standard for success fairly low: 31 percent.
That is what Sen. Edward Kennedy scored as an insurgent candidate against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
"Thirty-one percent is the ceiling," Bradley consultant Anita Dunn said.
So if Bradley does even better Monday night, the media will say he "exceeded expectations."
Predictably, the Gore campaign does not think much of the Bradley spin.
"They were playing to win; they weren't playing to place," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said. "This is not win, place and show. This is winner and loser."
So the Gore camp would like everyone to report Monday night that the vice president clobbered his challenger.
This is business as usual for Iowa. More often than not, the caucuses have been more about exceeding expectations than pure victories.
In 1972, George McGovern surprised everyone by winning 26 percent of the vote against Ed Muskie, who won 36 percent. McGovern built on that momentum and won the nomination.
The 1976 caucuses are credited with jump-starting Jimmy Carter's underdog campaign. He actually won and finished with 29 percent, although the uncommitted vote was 38 percent.
In 1984, Walter Mondale won the Democratic caucuses with 49 percent. But all of the buzz was about Gary Hart, who had an unexpected 16 percent.
A win by the numbers often produces less than doing better than expected. Bush can ask his dad about that.
George Bush won the 1980 caucuses but Ronald Reagan eventually won the Republican nomination and Bush became his running mate. He finished third in the 1988 caucuses, behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. Guess who won the nomination and the presidency.
The problem with the caucuses is they are given more importance than they would otherwise warrant merely because they are the first votes that count.
The Democratic and Republican caucuses are expected to draw about 100,000 voters each. That's about 12 percent of the total registered voters. In Florida, that kind of turnout would be cause for concern even in a state legislative race. In New Hampshire, the turnout for competitive presidential primaries routinely hits 70 percent for both parties.
Yet candidates troop to Iowa anyway.
Bill Bradley will spend $1.4-million on television advertising here in hopes of persuading roughly 30,000 voters to attend caucuses Monday night and support him. It would be cheaper to pay the voters directly. The Republicans already have done that, paying $25 per vote in the August straw poll.
Hugh Winebrenner, the Drake University professor who keeps track of the number of days candidates spend in Iowa, predicts Republican candidates will have spent about 600 days in the state by Monday's caucuses.
That would be a new record. So what? More than half of those days were spent by Lamar Alexander and other Republicans who aren't even in the race anymore.
What are we learning from Iowa? Are we supposed to deduce that candidates who get voters to go out Monday night and support them are somehow better prepared to be president?
"I've never been totally persuaded that someone who can organize a state like Iowa is more qualified to be president than someone who can do well in a primary state like New Hampshire," Winebrenner said. "It's the institutionalized beginning of the campaign, and there are institutionalized expectations of what should happen."
Like exceeding expectations.
So let's go out on a limb.