Associate opinion editor

Step away from Iowa, Mitt.

After commissioning anti-Rick Perry robo-calls in Iowa last week, Romney visited the eastern part of the state on Monday. But contesting Iowa would be bad for him, and it could even be bad for the country.

America’s presidential nominating system is rife with flaws, but designating Iowa the first state to award its delegates is among the most glaring. Iowa’s caucus system arbitrarily privileges voters with the wherewithal — or even simply the patience — to sacrifice hours during a weekday evening to the nominating process. It favors the zealous over the moderate, activists over everyone else. A mere 85,000-or-so Iowa Republicans, unrepresentative of the national GOP, skew presidential races to favor socially conservative ethanol-lovers.

Because of this, Iowa seemed to be losing some of its electoral mojo since crowning George W. Bush in 2000. Conservative populist Mike Huckabee, the winner in 2008, quickly became a southern-fried sideshow, despite taking the state. Romney, relatively moderate and still the most likely to win the GOP nomination in 2012, had decided to ignore the state in his second run for the GOP nomination. Iowa was to be a loony spectacle on the way to New Hampshire, rather than the defining early battle of the campaign. Until Romney’s recent activity in the state.

Even if Romney doesn’t care about diminishing Iowa’s influence, he should care about making a strategic mistake.

The heavy influence of evangelical Christians — not Romney’s base — in the distorted caucus system makes Iowa a poor match for him. In 2008, Romney spent about $230 on advertising for every vote he got in that year’s Iowa caucuses. He outspent Huckabee by 7 to 1 — and he still only claimed the same 25 percent-or-so he is currently registering in polls of Iowa Republicans after barely stepping foot in the state this year. Joshua Green argues that Romney has a ceiling of support in Iowa . But you don’t have to go that far to determine that committing to the state would be an unnecessary risk for Romney.

The only reason Iowa matters is in how its caucus results match or defy the expectations the public and the press have. Beat them, and you can become the instant frontrunner, which is what John Kerry did in 2004 and Barack Obama did in 2008. Dash them, and your campaign can implode — like Howard Dean’s and Hillary Clinton’s. By declining to campaign in Iowa, Romney would face a one-way bet. He could beat low expectations and gain momentum, or he could easily explain away a loss and move on to dominate early states more favorable to him, such as New Hampshire and Nevada. On the other hand, pushing resources into Iowa, which Romney appears increasingly poised to do, could produce an early victory him — or doing so could result in an embarrassing defeat and questions about Romney’s competence, which is what happened in 2008. A follow-up loss in South Carolina, which will be a tough race for the former Massachusetts governor, could sink him.

Keep away, Mitt. If not for us, for yourself.