Most Americans are just starting to tune in to the 2008 presidential campaign and with headlines focused on security expenses for Rudy Giuliani's liaisons with his then mistress (now wife) and on Hillary Clinton's attacks on Barack Obama's kindergarten assignments, they may very well tune back out until after the holidays.
The citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire don't have that luxury. Campaign fliers and phone solicitations have been inundating them for months, and anyone looking to fuel up the family sedan risks running into a glad-handing candidate at the gas station. But that just makes them the perfect subjects for the first installment of our TIME election-year survey of the American electorate.
Political polls usually function as Ouija boards that campaigns and pundits can use to try to predict the outcome of an election. We're more interested in figuring out how voters make the decisions that lead to that outcome. Is it a gut reaction, an emotional response to a candidate who makes them feel proud or angry? Are voters more interested in character traits like leadership and sincerity or in policy positions that match their own?
Democratic and Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are much like their counterparts around the country no more liberal or conservative than the national average. But they have responded to the presidential candidates in ways that differ dramatically from the results reflected in national polls. Those vibrant variations give us insight into how the electorate might respond when given more exposure to and information about the candidates.
For Hillary Clinton, engagement with voters in Iowa as well as her opponents' stepped-up attacks on her there has come at a cost. She remains the clear front-runner nationally but looks much more vulnerable in the Hawkeye State, where the Democratic race has tightened to a three-way tie. Strikingly, the very advantages that Clinton enjoys elsewhere being seen as a strong leader with the most electability dissipate in Iowa. And she trails far behind Obama and John Edwards in perceptions that she has strong moral character, is inspiring and says what she believes. Voters also express emotional reactions to candidates, and on that front, Clinton's numbers in Iowa look different as well. She generates less hope and pride in Iowa than in New Hampshire or the nation as a whole and those Iowans who say she makes them feel afraid are far less likely to support her than are their counterparts at the national level.
Obama, who spent much of the fall batting back attacks on his experience, seems to have benefited from quality time with Iowa voters. Nationally, his perceived lack of experience shows up in significantly less support among Democrats most concerned about national security. But this gap virtually disappears in Iowa, where voters have heard him talk about his childhood in Indonesia and field foreign policy questions at length. As for New Hampshire, the same pattern holds: Voters have warmed to Obama and cooled to Clinton.
Iowans are particularly moved by Edwards and his populist message: 79% of Iowa Democrats say they find him inspiring, compared with 66% of Democrats nationally. That excitement is reflected in the high level of overall satisfaction that Iowa Democrats have with their field of candidates. They are much more likely than Republican voters are to give high ratings to candidates who are not their first choice which party leaders hope will lead to an enthusiasm advantage they can count on in November 2008.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Iowa place more importance on character issues than on leadership and experience, which explains why Obama and Edwards have been able to challenge Clinton in the state. And those priorities have hurt the other national front-runner, Rudy Giuliani. Like Clinton, the former New York City mayor is seen as the most electable candidate in his party by voters nationally. But in Iowa, where the Republican base is dominated by social conservatives and where national-security fears come second to social and moral concerns, Giuliani suffers for the low evaluation of his character. Just 46% of Iowa Republicans say Giuliani has a strong moral character, a number that is barely half that of every other G.O.P. candidate. Not surprisingly, the candidate who scores best on that front, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (95% give him high moral marks), has been moving up in the polls and now shares the lead in Iowa with Mitt Romney.
Fortunately for Giuliani, Republicans nationally and in New Hampshire are divided on the question of whether strong leadership or moral character is the most important quality in a President. Giuliani draws high levels of support among G.O.P. voters who are most concerned about national-security issues, and that describes almost half of Republicans nationally. For those voters, the New Yorker's experience during 9/11 and his foreign policy rhetoric trump any concerns about his character and background.
The news may be bleakest for those who hoped the country might tire of division and acrimony and be ready to come together behind common concerns. Voters in the two parties remain deeply divided over the qualities they seek in a President and the concerns that most worry them. Many more Republicans than Democrats are looking for a candidate with strong moral character, while Democrats are much more likely to seek someone with good judgment who cares about people like them. National security is set solidly at the front of G.O.P. minds, while Democrats continue to focus on economic issues. There is one topic they care about equally: social and moral issues. But that's because they each oppose the other's views. Those gulfs between the two camps competing for the White House will persist well beyond the election, which is why how America decides is just as significant as whom it chooses.