Tuesday’s Iowa caucus goes down in the history books as a photo finish for an epic race. Mitt Romney edged out victory over Rick Santorum by just eight votes, with Ron Paul finishing not far behind. Iowa City photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier, who has been covering the race in the Hawkeye State for TIME, offers an inside look at this the quintessential American saga from its early to final days, and in chronicling this path, he sheds light on a Republican spirit ready to take on Barack Obama.
Frazier’s lens captures the sentiments not just of the candidates but also of the voters, as well as the reporters who’ve covered them both. For Frazier, the Iowa path is well-worn. He traced the campaign trail for the magazine in 2008, and now, four years and a recession later, the state’s mood appears expectant and committed. The Tea Party vigor has muted, but the determination for change has not. It is apparent in the eyes of those he photographed, from Occupy Des Moines protesters to Faith and Freedom Coalition banqueters to veterans at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, all of whom were preparing to make 2012’s first great decision. And when you behold his images of empty audience chairs after campaign stops and candidate speeches, you can’t help but feel the present investment Iowans—and all the nation’s Republicans—feel in their political future.
“I followed Republican presidential hopefuls as they addressed voters in kitchens, cafes, and town halls—candidates opening themselves up to unexpected questions as they met face to face with factory workers, farmers and residents of a state that is questioned over its first in the nation status once every four years,” Frazier said. “Attack ads paid off, as did the traditional formula of visiting all 99 counties and doing the ‘work’ that wins Iowa.”
Several of Frazier’s photos have already become some of the election’s most memorable. He snapped Michele Bachmann moments after she declared her candidacy in June, and Newt Gingrich as he was getting his makeup done for a November interview—both of which were featured in the pages of TIME last year. Then there are his images of Rick Perry hunting pheasants with Rep. Steve King (R-IA) in October and Rick Santorum following suit two months later. Some things never change—you have to know the game to play the race.
Danny Wilcox Frazier is a photographer with Redux who is based in Iowa City.
Elizabeth Dias is a reporter in TIME’s Washington bureau. Find her on Twitter @elizabethjdias.