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Obama's record dampens voters' enthusiasm in Iowa

| Monday, Sept. 17, 2012
Although Republican challenger Mitt Romney can focus on one issue everywhere he campaigns -- the economy -- President Obama must cater his message depending on his audience, political analysts said. (Chris Togneri | Tribune-Review)
At a Labor Day weekend event outside Des Moines, President Obama tried to rally supporters in a state he won in 2008, but is now virtually deadlocked with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Chris Togneri | Tribune-Review
Logan Williams, 21, a University of Iowa student, balances on a slack line between classes. He and other students say the enthusiastic support President Obama enjoyed in 2008 has diminished. 'I realize there was a lot of work to be done, and that Congress got in the way, but at the same time, he did promise all that change,' Williams said. 'And it didn't happen.' (Chris Togneri | Tribune-Review)

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Change has come, although not in the way President Obama might have hoped.

In 2008, this hip, progressive college town — a liberal stronghold surrounded by cornfields — was in the grips of Obama fever. Students proudly wore Obama shirts to class and displayed “Change” placards in dorm windows. Campaign volunteerism soared. Everyone wanted tickets to Obama campaign events.

“Everyone was like, ‘Obama's coming to town, Obama's coming to town!'” said Logan Williams, 21, of Iowa City, a student at the University of Iowa. “But this year, I mean I literally had tickets to one of his events in my hands, and I said, ‘No thanks.' ”

Enthusiasm for Obama, who started his historic 2008 campaign in the Hawkeye State, has dropped noticeably, particularly among college-age voters, said students and analysts.

Four years ago, 63 percent of college-age voters in Iowa voted in the general election, the second-highest turnout of any state, behind Minnesota. Most of them voted for Obama, helping him take Iowa 54 percent to 44 percent over U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But 2012 is “a whole different scenario,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

“All of those students who supported Obama have graduated, and they're out there, and they're not finding jobs,” Hagle said. “And the students who are on campus now, they don't have a new and shiny person to vote for.

“They have an incumbent running on his record. And whether you want to blame it on Obama or not, his record is not good. The economy still is not looking good, and more than usual I hear students who are worried about that. They're thinking ahead and wondering how they're going to find a job when they graduate.”

The latest poll results show the race to be a virtual deadlock.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney could capitalize on the malaise by hammering home a simple message, Hagle said: “The economy is bad. Obama failed. I know how to fix it.”

“Romney has the easier path,” he said. “He can just focus on the economy, no matter where he goes.”

The Obama campaign acknowledges the enthusiasm gap and has scheduled numerous events, even though Iowa accounts for just six Electoral College votes. A candidate needs 270 to win.

In speech after speech, Obama thunders at crowds, trying to supply the passion that supporters created last election cycle. At a Labor Day weekend event in Urbandale, outside Des Moines, he criticized Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and GOP running mate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin for adopting a leadership philosophy reminiscent of the George W. Bush era.

“On issue after issue, Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan will take us backwards,” Obama told the crowd of 10,000 people. “But the story of America is to move forward.”

When the crowd booed at the mention of the Republicans, Obama quipped: “Don't boo. Vote!”

As his speech drew to a close, he told attendees that Iowa carried him to victory and urged their support this time.

“It was you, Iowa, who kept us going when the pundits were writing us off,” he said, his finger jabbing the air for emphasis. “And it will be you, Iowa, who chooses the path we take from here. ... I'm counting on you, and I need your help.”

Will such speeches be enough? Even Obama supporters are not sure.

“In '08, it was a historic-type election. Whenever he came around, it was hyped up so much,” said recent college grad George Hoyos, 22, of Iowa City. “Now he's been president for four years. Change has happened. It just depends on how you look at it, whether the change has been good or bad.”

Jenny Matkovich, 26, who attended the rally in Urbandale, was a student at the University of Iowa in 2008. Then, she said, students viewed Obama as if he were a rock star.

“I was proud to wear my Obama shirt to class — it was cool,” she said. “Everyone wanted to be involved. It was exciting; everybody was into it.

“Now it's different. Even in a liberal place like Iowa City, people don't even want to talk about politics.”

Obama tailors his messages to his audiences, Hagle said.

To factory workers, he reiterates his support for wind energy, a burgeoning sector in Iowa employing 7,000 people, Hagle said. To younger voters, he tells them he will expand tax cuts for higher education and push for more Pell education grants. To a mixed crowd such as the one in Urbandale, he reminds them that Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch.

“It's like throwing out pieces of candy, depending on where he's talking,” Hagle said. “It's tougher because he really can't run on his record, so wherever he goes, it's, ‘Here's this little thing I'm going to give to you.'

“Are people going to focus so narrowly that that will swing their vote? Sometimes the answer is yes. But that's a tougher winning strategy. That's the contrast between 2008 and 2012. Then he had big themes of hope and change. Now he's got a tougher sell.”

It's hard to find a “Hope” shirt or Obama bumper sticker in Iowa City these days. In fact, political pins of any kind are hard to come by as excitement about politics has subsided.

“There was a lot of change promised,” said Williams, an undecided voter leaning toward Romney. “I realize there was a lot of work to be done and that Congress got in the way, but at the same time he did promise all that change and it didn't happen.

“I guess I want a different kind of change now.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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