By Dylan Stableford and Holly Bailey of Yahoo! News and Shushannah Walshe of ABC News
DES MOINES, Iowa—On an early December day, in a small radio studio on the icy outskirts of downtown Des Moines, talk radio host Steve Deace downplayed his influence with Hawkeye state voters.
“Candidates win elections, not talk show hosts,” Deace said in an interview.
Mitt Romney might beg to differ.
Four-years ago, in the run-up to the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the 38-year-old, self-described “conservative blowtorch” and unapologetic opponent of homosexuality and abortion used his then drive-time pulpit to help Mike Huckabee defeat Mitt Romney in his state’s contest. Deace trashed Romney on his show at every opportunity, referring to the ex-Massachusetts governor by his first name, (“Willard is not a conservative!” the host frequently declared), and railing against other high-profile Republicans—including Rush Limbaugh—for championing Romney’s candidacy.
At the same time, Deace gave Huckabee plenty of valuable airtime. It was on Deace’s show in August 2007 that the cash-strapped candidate urged his supporters to get tickets and rides to the influential straw poll in Ames from rival campaigns. Huckabee, who spent virtually nothing on the event, came in a close second to Romney, who burned through more than $1 million on the affair—an early sign of Huckabee’s surge.
Just after the new year, Romney lost in virtually every Iowa county where Deace’s show could be heard.
He may not have been as ubiquitous as Tina Fey during the last election cycle, but Deace was arguably as influential as Sarah Palin’s doppelganger.
“He did anything he could to destroy Mitt Romney,” said Doug Gross, who chaired Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign. “He was practically Huckabee’s campaign manager.”
Deace, who lives in West Des Moines with his wife of 14 years and three children, hasn’t been silent in the interim, either. During the 2010 midterm elections, Deace backed Iowa gubernatorial hopeful Bob Vander Plaats, a close friend, and attacked Terry Branstad, one of the other two candidates in the primary. Vander Plaats lost the primary, but managed to win more than 40 percent of the vote, gathering unexpected support in central Iowa where Deace broadcasts.
Deace, who bears a somewhat striking resemblance to the comedian Patton Oswalt, downplayed his influence. “I don’t really view myself as a leader. If anything, I’m an amplifier,” he said. “I just happen to be the one person from this group of people that has a microphone in front of their face.”
To be sure, this “group of people” is a formidable one. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, evangelicals make up a third of likely Iowa caucus-goers; on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, a Des Moines Register poll showed that 64 percent of Iowans identify themselves as mostly or very conservative. And for many in that mass, Deace, who hasn’t yet endorsed (or demonized) a specific candidate this time around, is a leader.
“Steve is very good at communicating what is politically complicated for every day people in Iowa,” explained Van Harden, Deace’s former program director at the local WHO Radio.
Jennifer Jacobs, chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register, agreed. “He has a gift for turning a phrase and spelling out a concept in a way that people really connect to,” she said.
Take how he described to Yahoo News his role in the 2012 election cycle: “I want to make sure that the candidates get a thorough vetting to the point that they don’t want to come back to Iowa again. That we gave them an ideological, moral proctology exam.”
But like those candidates who blanket Iowa like cornrows once every four years, Deace had his sights on something bigger.
In February, Deace left WHO, Des Moines’ AM talk-radio station where he began as a sports talk show host, to launch a nationally-syndicated radio show on the Truth Radio Network, a network of Christian talk radio stations spread mostly across North Carolina, Virginia and Utah. (Many of Deace’s loyal listeners tuned in online.) This month, the Salem Radio Network, a Dallas-based broadcaster serving more than 2,000 radio stations, picked up Deace’s program and moved the show from drive-time to primetime.
Still, not too much about the show has changed. It still begins with an audio montage of politicians from Reagan to Obama making statements about Christianity (Obama: “We are no longer a Christian nation”) played over The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” And it carries the same motto: “Fear God. Tell the truth. Make money.” And it still takes the piss out of Mitt Romney.
“Mitt Romney, his entire political career, has been a staunch advocate of sodomy,” Deace said on a recent show, rattling off evidence of the Massachusetts governor’s gay-friendliness. “He gave interviews to Bay Windows, which is a gay publication in Boston, when he was running for governor. He doubled the funding for gay education in Massachusetts. You heard Mitt Romney at the top of the hour in his own words. ‘I feel that all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.’
But has abandoning local radio—and drive-time—in favor of national syndication, diminished Deace’s influence on politics in Iowa?
“No question,” said Craig Robinson, founder of TheIowaRepublican.com and former political director of the Iowa Republican party. “His style of politics, and the type of show he does, is very influential in drive time. His broadcasts would reach three-quarters of the state. In a caucus cycle, that’s a huge, 50,000-watt microphone. His syndicated national show, it’s just not quite the same.”
“Let’s face it, his prominence has been driven by the fact that he’s in Iowa,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of radio-industry bible Talkers magazine. “For hosts in these small to medium-sized markets, caucuses and primaries put them at the center of the biggest show in town.”
Deace isn’t concerned about losing his edge. In fact, he sees his influence rising.
“If anything, I probably have more access to the process much more now than I did four years ago particularly because I’m not seen as the champion of one candidate,” he said. “I might have more influence this time than I had four years ago—It’s just a different kind of influence. I think our show will have a tremendous influence on the outcome, but it won’t be necessarily picking a horse in the race.”
Deace noted that he has given advice to all of the GOP candidates, and added that many of them are trying to woo him—both privately and publicly. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whom Deace said he’s closest to, was a guest on his primetime debut. A supporter of Ron Paul, conservative author Thomas Woods, is trying to get him on board with the congressman. Yet a Paul endorsement makes Deace uneasy; some of Paul’s foreign policy views don’t sit well with him, and he doesn’t think that Paul believes homosexuality is a sin.
So who is he going to endorse this time? Deace says he plans to tell his listeners who he is going to vote for before Christmas. His choice may not be as clear as Huckabee was four years ago, and it’s potentially less-influential to boot, given Deace’s new show format and the late-stage timing of his announcement. Not to mention whom he has to pick from.
“He’s got multiple social conservatives, all of them with some sort of defect, to promote, so it will be difficult for him to organize,” said Gross, Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign manager. “The people that would be ‘pure’ enough for him, like Bachmann and Santorum, don’t have the capability of winning.”
Dylan Stableford is senior media reporter and Holly Bailey is senior political reporter for Yahoo News. Shushannah Walshe is a digital reporter for ABC News. This story is part of a series of articles on the politics of Iowa, leading up to Saturday’s Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, sponsored by Yahoo News and ABC News. Come to Yahoo! at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday to watch the debate, and for live coverage and analysis.