How important will Iowa be in 2012? The Post’s Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker have a good reported piece about Iowans worried that their state may be losing a bit of its influence, complete with some Iowa-bashing from New Hampshire. My feeling? They shouldn’t worry.

First of all, the idea that New Hampshire’s electorate — less evangelical, less conservative, fewer “tinfoil hats” (in the words of a former New Hampshire GOP chair) — is therefore more representative of the Republican Party is . . . well, let’s just say it’s not an uncontested assertion. Surely, whatever some in New Hampshire might want, there’s certainly no chance that the Republican Party in 2012 will nominate someone with moderate, much less liberal, positions on social issues.

But I think that the larger issue is that the process, as it is, works well for the people in the party who really matter — the politicians, the campaign and governing professionals, the party-aligned interest groups and the activists. What all of those people really need, above all else, is stability. That’s the real lesson of the 1970s. When reform first took place (after the 1968 election), it took all of those party leaders (a group I think of very broadly) a long time to figure out how to maximize their influence. As a result, some odd nominations happened, especially on the Democratic side. But once everyone had enough iterations of the process to figure out how to play the new game, those kinds of results ended. Nomination battles could still be close (as in 2008 on both sides), and could involve real conflict between party factions (that’s one way to think about the 2000 cycle on the Republican side), but everyone knew the rules.

So there’s a real incentive for the party to keep things relatively stable — which also means penalizing those candidates who, for example, skip Iowa.

Now, because everyone thinks that beating expectations matters (it probably does a little, although it’s probably overstated), we can expect front-runners to downplay the importance of Iowa, especially if they have good reason to believe they may not win there. That’s what Mitt Romney is up to. But don’t worry, Iowans; you’re still No. 1, and that’s not going away any time soon.