And So It Begins
The 2012 U.S. presidential election, that is, plus this blog. The year-long run-up to the 2012 election campaign is just about over and the seven Republican Party presidential contenders will find out soon enough whether Iowa truly is the stuff of presidential dreams or a cold and dreary Midwestern dead end. My hope is that this space will shed some light on the campaign in the months to come and will be a forum for an exchange of ideas, analysis and opinions.
The Iowa Stakes
The state of Iowa doesn’t always choose presidents just because it votes first in the nominating process. But a top three finish is probably a good idea for anyone with a real hope of winning the Republican nomination. No candidate who has ever finished lower than third place in the Iowa caucuses has ever won a party nomination for president. Most states hold presidential primaries where voters go and vote at their local polling stations. But Iowa and a small group of other states prefer caucus meetings where voters come together at a local school or community center, hold a brief meeting and then vote, either by secret ballot or a show of hands.
The Top Candidates
In recent weeks, the 2012 Republican Party race had been shaping up as a two-person affair between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. But the latest CNN/Time Magazine poll out of Iowa shows Romney with a slight lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul, with Gingrich tumbling into fourth place behind former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Think of Ron Paul as a wild card, especially in Iowa, where he runs in the top bracket with Romney. Paul could win in Iowa, which would probably help Romney and hurt Gingrich. Most of the experts and Republican elites write off Paul as a serious contender for the nomination, which is why most of the talk centers on Romney and Gingrich, though Gingrich may be fading.
Looking To Break Through
About half of the Republican voters in Iowa are Christian or evangelical conservatives who are primarily concerned with upholding family values and who oppose abortion and gay marriage. They often play a major role in the Republican caucus race in Iowa, which four years ago was won by Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who was a favorite with the family values crowd. Huckabee won in the state because he solidified support among social conservatives.
This year, three candidates hope to appeal to that same group — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Santorum seemed to be the most natural fit since he emphasizes these issues, and the latest CNN poll suggests he may be starting to click with these voters. Perry came into the race like gangbusters but quickly fizzled when he couldn’t remember the third cabinet department he’d like to eliminate. Bachmann won a test vote in Iowa in August, also known as a straw poll, but got immediately trumped by Perry’s entry into the race, so none of the three has caught on. If one of them has a surprise surge on caucus night, January 3rd, it could alter the race a bit. But for moment all three seem to be splitting the all-important social conservative vote and that could give Mitt Romney or Ron Paul an opening to win the caucuses.
How Important Will Iowa Be?
This has been a chaotic and at times confusing Republican race so far, so it’s not a given that the Iowa results will necessarily bring clarity to the field. A Romney victory would be huge for him, and somewhat surprising, and would set up a potentially knockout blow in the New Hampshire Republican primary a week later where he is heavily favored. A Gingrich victory would put Romney back on his heels and force him to spend more time and money winning New Hampshire and then face an uncertain future in the next primary, South Carolina, on January 21st. But if Ron Paul wins in Iowa, it will hurt Gingrich more than Romney. In fact in the Iowa race so far, Paul has been Romney’s best ally, running negative TV ads targeting Gingrich that have caused his poll numbers to weaken. Romney has also been running anti-Newt ads, but Gingrich is about to fire back in the closing days of the campaign.
Tradition, basically. Iowans started their caucus voting in 1972 when Ed Muskie beat George McGovern in the Democratic voting. Later, McGovern was annihilated in the general election by the Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon.
But it was Jimmy Carter who put the caucuses on the map with an early victory in 1976 that propelled him toward the White House. Before that the New Hampshire primary reigned supreme as the first real test vote in presidential politics. New Hampshire is still pretty important but Iowa gets the nod as #1 and both states often act together to maintain their early status in fending off challenges from other states who would like in on some of the early action.
An early victory by Romney in Iowa, followed a week later by an expected win in New Hampshire, would give the former Massachusetts governor a huge lead in the Republican race. A win by Gingrich could signal a long and bitter Republican primary, somewhat like Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton among the Democrats in 2008. A win by Ron Paul would elevate him into top tier status and probably make it a three-person race for at least the next several weeks.