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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’00: Legacy Candidates

This is the eighth installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.

In 1979, the University of Iowa hired Hayden Fry as their new head football coach. After 17 years in a row without a winning season, the team had nowhere to go but up, and Iowa City fans from all over the state were hoping that Fry's success coaching at Southern Methodist University and North Texas State University would rub off on the Hawkeyes. It took only three seasons for Fry to turn the team around enough to qualify to compete in the Rose Bowl in 1981. With that same spirit, he turned the University of Iowa football program into the powerhouse it is today. Before he got started in football, however, Fry grew up in central Texas, where he helped support his family's income by working in the oil fields. During his childhood in Texas, he first met future president George H. W. Bush — Fry claims that he worked alongside Bush in the oil fields before he left to join the military. A few years after they met, Fry helped find the newly married Bushes their first apartment, and the two remained friends into their adult lives, which is why, as a favor to his old friend, Coach Hayden Fry temporarily left his retirement in the summer of 1999. He spent the days leading up to the Ames Straw Poll traveling the state, campaigning alongside the younger Bush, persuading Iowa voters in a way only the winningest football coach in U of I history could. Fry's help must have paid off because Texas Governor George W. Bush went on to win the Ames Straw Poll by more than 10 points. Five months later, he won the Iowa caucus.

Just as Hayden Fry was wrapping up his cameo on the campaign trail, the 2000 cycle also featured unusually high participation from former and current president: Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. In a contest between two presidents-in-waiting, the two presidents hit the trail to promote their respective protégés. Some saw Texas Governor George W. Bush's campaign as a way to reconcile his father's failure to earn a second term. Vice President Al Gore's campaign did not suggest much deviation from the policy agenda he had followed as number two in the Clinton administration for eight years. The race was reminiscent of a repeat of the 1992 Clinton vs. Bush contest, with Gore playing the role of Clinton and the younger Bush playing the role of his father.

With established legacy frontrunners in both parties, this incumbent-less caucus was bound to look a little different than contested races of the past. This is not to say, however, that the other candidates did not put up a fight. For the Democrats, Gore's only declared competitor was former professional basketball player and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Although both Gore and Bradley were similar on policy issues, Bradley attempted to frame his campaign as an alternative to the continuation of the Clinton Administration that Gore's candidacy presented. Many Americans were ready to move on following Clinton's impeachment trial and the many accusations of dishonesty and sexual misconduct, and Bradley wanted to be the alternative option.

The Republican field in 2000 presented a much wider range of options than the two-man

race between the Democrats; frontrunner Bush had five major competitors going into the Iowa caucuses. Steve Forbes was back for a second shot at the presidency, and this time around, he decided to tone down his negative advertisements. He still outspent his competitors at local television stations by a wide margin, but Bush seemed to escape much of the same kind of negative targeting that Bob Dole received in '96. Also running were conservative commentator Alan Keyes, former Reagan staffer Gary Bauer, Arizona Senator John McCain, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. Although none of these candidates performed very well in the Iowa caucuses, McCain did manage to beat Bush in a couple of primaries, largely in New England. It was not enough to prevent Bush's domination of the delegate count going into the Republican National Convention.

Looking at the 2000 caucus as a whole, Bush's victory could have been predicted by looking at fundraising totals alone. His campaign raised nearly 70 million dollars leading up to the caucuses, completely dwarfing his opponents' totals, including Forbes, who spent millions of his own dollars on his campaign. Even Gore's numbers couldn't compare, as he elected to spend most of his campaign fund in other states where Bradley presented more of a challenge. Gore would go on to win the Iowa Democratic caucus with 63% to Bradley's 37%.

Across the board, the 2000 Iowa caucuses did not present caucus-goers with much of an exciting or new choice of candidates. Bush and Gore were already familiar to a national audience, so there was not much to be surprised about. These expectations were also reflected in voter turnout, which was slightly lower than in previous competitive years. In a cycle that represented a battle between the Clinton legacy and the Bush legacy, Bush would eventually win. But not before he first appealed to the uniquely politically engaged voters of Iowa.


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