More than 35,000 Iowa children are homeschooled. Their parents are mostly evangelical conservatives, and likely caucus goers. Mike Huckabee successfully tapped into the Iowa homeschooler network in 2007 and that support helped propel him to the Iowa Caucus victory. It makes perfect sense that potential 2012 candidates would want a piece of that electorate. That is why three presidential hopefuls made their pitch to the state’s homeschoolers Wednesday.
Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Congressman Ron Paul and businessman Herman Cain each spoke at the annual NICHE (Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators) conference, to a crowd of 750. A candidate that can win over the homeschoolers picks up more than just votes. Barb Heki, a NICHE board member and homeschooling mother of four, is also a veteran political activist. Her children have also become involved in campaigns. She says a candidate that can win over the homeschoolers receivers a huge volunteer boost by getting entire families involved.
“It will be incredibly important to get the support of home educators,” Heki said. “They are an energetic, driving force in the political environment. They also have flexibility in their schedules that others don’t. We were able to door knock for a few hours in the afternoon and then work on school at night time.”
The three potential candidates took three entirely different approaches to their speeches Wednesday. Paul catered his specifically to the crowd, spending the majority of it focusing on homeschooling. Cain delivered a personal story centered on the theme of getting government out of the way of the American Dream. Bachmann gave a standard, but fiery, stump speech. All three were well-received by the audience.
It is difficult to say if any of the candidates swayed the crowd more than the others. Everyone I spoke with was unanimous in their praise of Michelle Bachmann. However, many attendees came with preconceived notions, which were not changed by Wednesday’s appearances. “I liked two of them,” said Dianna Burden of Mt. Union. “Michelle Bachmann comes from a background of homeschooling that I can relate to. Mr. Cain, I was impressed with what he said about people’s dreams being achieved.”
Steve Andres is a homeschooling father from Council Bluffs. He is also a Ron Paul fan. “I believe he is the most experienced, has the longest record and is a strict constructionist,” Andres said. “I was impressed by Bachmann, too. Cain, not so much.”
Nancy Anderson, of Des Moines, could not decide if she liked Bachmann or Cain the most. “I was very impressed with both of them,” she said. “Ron Paul, I’m not sure where he stands on national security. It’s way too early for me to pick a candidate.”
Heath Hill, a home schooling father from Ames, attended the event with his wife, son and nephew. They left before Bachmann’s speech, but Hill was impressed with what he heard from Cain and Paul. “Cain is very engaging,” Hill said. “As a conservative, I appreciate what Cain says as much as how he says it. He uses emotion to make you like him, but backs it up with factual content. That’s a powerful combination.” Hill also likes Ron Paul. “The only thing Dr. Paul lacks is the ability to pander to the middle or left. That’s not a bad thing to conservatives, but it makes him less appealing to the sheep.”
However, out of the three candidates, Paul clearly pandered the most to the homeschooling crowd. Out of a 17 minute dialogue, 11 were spent discussing homeschooling. The Texas congressman is a long time advocate of letting parents determine the course of their children’s education. Paul received one of the biggest applause lines of the day when he mentioned a bill he sponsored that would give parents a $5,000 tax credit for each child that is homeschooled.
As a bystander, I figured Paul’s speech resonated most with the crowd because he catered it to the crowd. Others viewed it differently. “Homeschooling is important to me, but there are other issues that are important beyond homeschooling,” said Dianna Burden. “A presidential candidate has to sing to more than one choir.” However, the NICHE crowd is one of the most important “choirs” presidential contenders will sing to in the early stages of the Iowa Caucus campaign.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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