Still Excited, and Undecided, in Iowa

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I had heard of them, legends mostly. Could they even exist in these polarized conditions?

Then I met one Wednesday. An undecided voter.

So many of us are burned out, polled out and argued out, afraid to answer the phone, just waiting for it to end, one way or the other. Then there’s Karen Clifton, who is still excited, still taking it all in.

“I’m not sick of it yet,” said Clifton, of Mechanicsville, who came to see President Obama speak at Cornell College, where she works. “I’m still listening to all the details and what’s going on.”

If Clifton were in California or Texas, her indecision would not be noteworthy. But she’s an undecided voter in Iowa. And Iowa is one of those few crucial puzzle pieces that Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are scrambling to add to that magical mathematic formula that gets them to 270 electoral votes, and sweet victory.

For Romney, Iowa is a linchpin in several victory scenarios. For Obama, Iowa could save his day should thin leads in other key states prove to be fool’s gold. Then there are those zany scenarios where they tie at 269 apiece, and throw the whole thing into a newly elected U.S. House of Representatives. Iowa figures into those plot twists, too. And we have four close House races.

New York Times polling guru Nate Silver says Iowa has an 8.8 percent chance of casting the decisive electoral votes. Maybe that doesn’t sound high, but that’s better than 45 other states. We’re more than twice as likely to decide this thing as Florida, Florida, Florida.

Silver also has a “return on investment” index, measuring the “likelihood that an individual voter in a state would determine the Electoral College winner with her vote.” Iowa’s score is 7.7, ranking us third nationally. Minnesota, by contrast, scores 0.1. So a vote cast in Iowa is 77 times more important than one cast up north.

Some day, we can assess the unfairness of that. For now though, in your face, Gophers.

In 2000, Al Gore won Iowa by just more than 4,000 votes. President Bush won in 2004 by roughly 10,000, out of 1.5 million cast.

“The election is now up to you,” Obama said at Cornell. He may be more right than he knows.

And that brings us back to Karen, who said she remains undecided after Obama’s speech. No pressure. Just leader of the free world stuff. When might you pick?

“Sometimes I don’t know until I walk in the door and pick up that pencil and vote,” she said.


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