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The Big Wide-Mouthed Frog Theory of Iowa Politics

Posted: July 13, 2015 | By: Dennis Goldford Tagged: About the Caucuses

Author:  Chris Larimer

Associate Professor, University of Northern Iowa

July 13, 2015

If there is one lesson the Iowa Caucuses have taught us, it is that name recognition alone will not carry the day (see, for example, the failed candidacies of John Glenn, Ted Kennedy, and Rudy Giuliani). Candidates must be accessible and approachable. Put another way, candidates must adhere to what I call the “big wide-mouthed frog theory of Iowa politics.”

This theory is derived from the children’s book, The Big Wide-Mouthed Frog, by Ana Martin Larranaga. In the book, we learn of a wide-mouthed frog who encounters various animals during his travels, including a kangaroo, koala, possum, and finally a crocodile. Upon meeting each animal, the frog asks, “Who are you, and what do you eat?” Despite being much smaller, the frog feels no apprehension about approaching these animals and peppering each one with questions.

So it is with the Iowa Caucuses.

Voters expect to be able to approach (with relative ease) candidates running for the highest office in the land, and will often do so with little hesitation. Candidates who appear less comfortable with such encounters are at risk of losing support to candidates who can. As the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year, Democratic insiders are hoping the 2016 version of Hillary Clinton will avoid appearing as “distant” as she did in 2008.

The New York Times recently reported on the surging campaign of Bernie Sanders, that his constant on-the-ground presence in Iowa is posing a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the Iowa Caucuses. In that article, Matt Paul, the current director of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Iowa and a former Communications Director to Governor Tom Vilsack, was quoted as saying, “The caucus is about working hard, with humility, to engage Iowans.”

Indeed it is. Candidates must show humility and to do so requires being out in front of voters on a regular basis.

The “big wide-mouthed frog” theory of Iowa politics suggests voters in Iowa place unique constraints on candidates running for office. Consider the attention and value presidential candidates in recent years have placed on completing what Jason Noble of the Des Moines Register coined “the full Grassley,” or the completion of a 99-county tour of Iowa, a campaign technique pioneered by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley.

The full Grassley is now considered a necessary rite of passage by presidential candidates in the year prior to the Iowa Caucuses, as is a visit to the Iowa State Fair, where candidates are expected to sample a portion of the wide variety of deep-fat-fried foods. And it is here that voters can approach candidates for president and quite literally ask: “Who are you and what do you eat?”

The expectations Iowa voters have for candidates for president may seem unusual, but they are part of a larger narrative about relatability. In Larranaga’s book, the wide-mouthed frog’s final encounter is with a crocodile who eats big wide-mouthed frogs. Upon hearing this, the frog immediately retreats with the words, “I’m off!”

In Iowa, the voters are humble, and they expect presidential candidates to be the same. If not, they will be “off” to find a new candidate.