Iowa and My Day with Herman Cain

The Iowa Caucus is finally in the books, and hundreds of reporters are saying adios to the heartland. I said my own goodbye to Iowa a little more than a year ago, when I packed up my old Cadillac and drove the 1,864 miles to San Jose.

During my time in Iowa, I worked as a reporter and columnist for a small-town newspaper, which is somewhat akin to being a D-list celebrity. It’s hard to go unnoticed when a third of the people in town subscribe to the paper and your picture is in it once a week. (It’s even harder when you gain a reputation for drinking Jack Daniels with your readers.)

But over the last six months, it’s the people of Iowa who have been put on pedestal like celebrities. Looking to ride the momentum of the first primary into New Hampshire and South Carolina, political candidates treated Iowans like royalty, pandering on almost any issue in the hopes of garnering votes. And Iowans, in general, eat it up.

But about a year and a half ago, I found myself in the strange position of being courted like an undecided in front of a straw poll. Without warning, a political team walked into the newsroom and asked for an interview. I agreed, but what was odd is I spent more time interviewing someone other than Brad Zaun, who was running—unsuccessfully it turned out—for the U.S. Senate.

Instead, I talked to someone who I knew nothing about and wasn’t running for any office at the time. That person was Herman Cain.

Cain and I traded points—what I remember most is that he rejected the premise that my name could be pronounced the same as his, even though it is—and after 30 minutes it became clear that I was not getting on board the Cain Train, or the Zaun (something that transports people and rhymes with “Zaun”). We shook hands as they left, but before everyone was gone, one of the staffers said to me, “You know he could run for President in 2012?”

Incredulous, I couldn’t help but smile. No doubt, Cain had a smooth way of relating to people, probably in the manner ‘W’ did on his own way to the White House, but he was clearly a huckster. Fast-forward a little more than a year from that day and Cain went from Iowa Caucus frontrunner—a guy who would “tell it like it is”—to fall guy after a series of sexual harassment and infidelity claims.

Looking at the results from Tuesday night, when Mitt Romney edged out Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes and Ron Paul made his presence felt, I’m left thinking two things: One, no one benefited more than Romney from the suspension of Cain’s campaign, which dispersed those tea party voters; and two, Santorum’s support will likely fade the further he gets from Iowa.

If you’re a Republican in Iowa, there’s a strong possibility you’re also Christian and an Evangelical Christian at that—the religious sect that carried Santorum (a Catholic). Abortion and gay marriage are two of the most important issues to Evangelicals, and no one benefited more from that than Santorum. But as my grandma pointed out Wednesday from her home, which is less than an hour from Des Moines, “[Santorum] was shaking hands in 99 counties, so he really worked the people.”

And that’s what campaigns are all about, especially in Iowa. Unlike in bigger states and cities, people in Iowa need to shake a candidate’s hand to check their grip. They need to see candidates at their local coffee shop. If candidates don’t ask for seconds of pie, they risk losing the baker’s votes as well as all of her Bible study partners. Voters want to feel important, no more so than in flyover states like Iowa.

Meanwhile, Romney stayed the course as he has done all year, building momentum in these final weeks by discrediting Obama and talking about faith but never delving too deep into the Mormon religion. Add in Romney’s reputation as an expert businessman and he snatched up a portion of former supporters of Cain, who was once CEO of Godfather’s Pizza—a brand my dad once said tastes like cardboard.

And that, in a sense, is all we have seen from the Republican candidates so far—cardboard cutouts of what they will be when religion doesn’t take center stage and stopping in all 99 counties isn’t the most important requirement.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.


  1. Good stuff Josh.
    Many of us fiscal conservatives are troubled knowing that we don’t have a good solid electable candidate in the race.
    Even so, come November I’ll take a cardboard cutout over an empty suit. You fancy yourself a good spotter of hucksters? Well so do I.

  2. >  I said my own goodbye to Iowa a little more than a year ago, when I packed up my old Cadillac and drove the 1,864 miles to San Jose.

    Yearned to breathe the pure and regulated air of a one-party society? 

    Got tired of all those creepy Evangelicals and Evangelical Christians in Iowa freely exercising their religion?

    Oh, I know.  They were probably cramming their morality down your throat.

    Yep.  I hate it when those fundamentalists think they know what’s best for everybody and cram their values down everybody’s gullets.

    Well, in California we beleive in TOLERANCE and FREEDOM.

    Except tolerance for merchants who choose to offer their customers a free, one-tenth of an ounce plastic shopping bag.

    Oh, and except for the freedom to burn a fire in your fireplace when the eco-facists have dictated a “spare the air” day to stop “global warming”.

    Last I heard, Iowa doesn’t have any global warming.

    But based on what I’ve heard from the government, the global warming in California is worse since you got here.


    I think not.

  3. Mr Koehn.

    Your statement;
    the religious sect that carried Santorum (a Catholic)

    Implies that Catholicism is but a mere fraction of the overall religious flavors available to the world. Yet as you can CLEARLY see below on the Pie Chart,

    That Catholicism makes up to 17% of the world religions (Only Muslims have more, with 19.8%)

    This time we will let you off with only a warning, but next time you use a word that denotes our divine holy worship as a mere “sect” of the overall Christian community, you will face the wrath of the…


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