For as long as most political junkies can remember, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses have been the sine qua non of the nomination fight, the place where presidential ambitions went to either bloom or bust.
But as the 2012 Republican nomination fight begins in earnest, there are questions being raised about whether Iowa’s caucuses are still a must-do or whether skipping the Hawkeye State entirely is not only doable but, in fact, a sound strategic move.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has sent mixed signals about how hard he will play in Iowa — although he will be in the state to campaign later this month. (It’s his first visit in 2011.) Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman seems more likely to focus on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
“Iowa Republicans have marginalized themselves to the point where competing in Iowa has become optional,” wrote Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican party in a recent column. (It’s worth noting that Cullen isn’t exactly a disinterested party given New Hampshire’s positioning in the primary.)
Sensing potential trouble, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) went public on Monday with a call for the 2012 candidates to pick up the pace in his home state. “I just want to make it clear that we’re wide open for all the candidates,” Branstad said at his weekly news conference.
Iowa’s latest fight for relevance is born — in many strategists’ minds — from the results of the 2008 Republican caucuses.
In that race, both Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani skipped Iowa — choosing to focus their time and energy on New Hampshire.
Relying on a patchwork of evangelical groups and home school advocates, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who had lavished the state with money and attention.
Huckabee proved unable to recreate his Iowa magic elsewhere in the country — though he came close in South Carolina — and, eventually, bowed out in favor of McCain.
Iowa detractors note that Huckabee was simply the latest example of how the dominant presence of social conservatives in the caucuses make it an unreliable predictor of the eventual nominee.
“If candidates don’t think they have level playing field and an equal opportunity to succeed in an early state they skip it [and] then a win has less meaning, and the national media will, rightfully, discount that win,” said Cullen in an interview with The Fix. “Then that early state will have killed the golden goose.”
Since 1980, there have been five seriously contested Iowa Republican caucuses; twice — 2000 and 1996 — has the Iowa winner gone on to win the nomination although in 1996 it was Pat Buchanan’s surprisingly strong second place showing that wound up being the story heading into New Hampshire.
“Iowa usually plays one of two roles in each cycle, sometimes both: It either ‘winnows the field’ as [former Tennessee Senator] Howard Baker put it by culling a field of candidate down to about three serious contenders or it boosts someone out of obscurity,” said David Yepsen, a longtime political reporter for the Des Moines Register.
Matt Strawn, the Iowa Republican party chairman, argued that comparisons to the 2008 race are “incredibly misguided” noting that the composition of the state’s GOP electorate has fundamentally changed since then.
As evidence Strawn cited the fact that 117,000 Republicans participated in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses while 220,000 voted in the June 2010 GOP primary. “You fight the last war at your own peril,” he added. It’s also worth noting that the in 2010 Iowa governor’s primary, Branstad, a fiscal conservative, bested Bob Vander Plaats who was much more closely identified with social conservatives.)
The moment of truth for 2012 candidates in Iowa will come sooner rather than later as the space around the Straw Poll site in Ames will be auctioned off on June 23. Roughly a month later the final Straw Poll ballot will be set.
The Straw Poll, which is set for August 13 this year, has long been regarded as an early organizational test of strength in advance of the caucuses. (Romney won the Ames Straw Poll in 2007 but Huckabee’s surprising second-place showing was a sign of things to come.)
“The straw poll will be a major story regardless of which candidates participate or decline to participate,” said Eric Woolson who helped lead Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign but is signed on with former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty this time around.
According to the Des Moines Register, there are six candidates confirmed to participate in the Straw Poll: Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Texas), pizza magnate Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
While Huntsman, who is being advised by many of the same people who surrounded McCain in 2000 and 2008, seems unlikely to participate, it remains an open question whether Romney or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, assuming he enters the race, will choose to compete.
Complicating those decisions is the fact that Huckabee, who would have been the prohibitive Iowa frontrunner, took himself out of the race over the weekend — creating, in theory, a more wide-open field for the remaining contenders.
“With the changes in the race that have taken place with Huckabee and [Donald] Trump, it really reaffirms Iowa’s relevance,” said Nick Ryan, a Iowa-based GOP strategist support Santorum. “If Huckabee had run again, it [would have made] it easier for some candidates to not play here or not play as hard because he won the caucuses before.”
If either or Romney or Daniels takes a pass, it seems likely that the Iowa caucuses will — to borrow Yepsen’s analogy — surface a more obscure candidate (Bachmann or Pawlenty being the two most obvious) rather than winnow the field.
If, on the other hand, Romney or Daniels (or both) make a serious play in Iowa, the state will be right back where it (almost) always is: at the center of the political universe.