05.18.11

Iowa Losing Its Electoral Edge: Republicans Skipping the Caucuses

Iowa has long enjoyed its place in the presidential-nomination process. But as Ed Kilgore points out, increasing numbers of Republicans are telling the Hawkeye State to take a hike.

Since the 1970s, the Iowa caucuses have served as the starting point for presidential campaigns, creating a difficult time- and money-consuming hurdle for candidates in both parties. Occasional efforts to dislodge Iowa—and its twin, the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire—from this privileged position have failed. The most that nomination-process reformers could achieve is the recent practice of creating a second tier of privileged states right after Iowa and New Hampshire (caucuses in Nevada and a primary in South Carolina) to provide a slightly more representative opening round of contests. But this year there is a burgeoning effort in national Republican circles to delegitimize Iowa on the novel grounds that caucus participants are, well, just a little too crazy.

The opening salvo of the anti-Iowa campaign came from New Hampshire, the state that would most immediately benefit from a decision by candidates and media to ignore the caucuses. Former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen wrote a poison-pen letter to Iowans in his own state’s Union-Leader, which was, of course, instantly republished in The Des Moines Register. Here’s a taste:

Doubt about whether all candidates have a fair shot at winning support among Iowa's caucus electorate has become a huge problem for the Hawkeye state. Evangelical Christians and social conservatives are key components of the diverse Republican coalition, but in Iowa, they are the dominant faction. Sixty percent of Republican caucus goers are evangelical Christians. In New Hampshire, they are 23 percent. Mike Huckabee's 2008 win in Iowa, and the perception that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith disqualified him among many caucus voters, begs the question for secular candidates who emphasize fiscal issues: If you're not likely to win what amounts to an evangelical primary, why compete?

Cullen went on to mention the unusual salience of the same-sex-marriage issue in Iowa, and to cite polls showing strong Iowa support for “birtherism.” He concluded: “It's hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wears tinfoil hats.”

The allusion to Mitt Romney in Cullen’s piece was sure to raise eyebrows and hackles in Iowa. The caucuses ruined Romney’s 2008 campaign, and there have been widespread reports for many months that he might skip the state this time around and begin his campaign in the much friendlier confines of New Hampshire (where he consistently leads in polls) and Nevada (whose substantial Mormon population makes him all but unassailable). As it happens, Cullen’s ignore-Iowa appeal hit the pages of the Register at about the same time as the influential website The Iowa Republican was reporting a highly impolitic remark by a Romney backer in the wake of Mitt’s extremely successful one-day fundraising drive under the title “What the Romney Campaign Really Thinks About Iowa”:

Today is Governor Romney’s National Call Day and we are all dialing for dollars! Today we demonstrate our ability to raise excessive and ungodly amounts of cash while other candidates are still pattering about in bumfuck, Iowa somewhere. No one can come close to what our machine can do. No one.

One Romney backer has bragged about the campaign’s “ability to raise excessive and ungodly amounts of cash while other candidates are still pattering about in bumfuck, Iowa.”

Romney is not the only potential candidate who might be tempted to cooperate in an ignore-Iowa effort. Fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman is even more ill equipped to compete there, and his staff is mostly composed of McCain veterans who likely share their former boss’s public disdain for Iowa. Mitch Daniels famously annoyed social conservatives with his call for a “truce” on the kind of cultural issues that are currently red-hot in Iowa. And in general, any candidate considering a late entry into the 2012 contest would love to avoid an Iowa campaign that essentially begins in the run-up to the August 13 state-party straw poll in Ames.

So who, other than Iowans, might push back against ignore-Iowa talk? Most obvious are the candidates who are “all-in” in Iowa, including not only fringe-dwelling social conservative firebrands like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Roy Moore but the more mainstream contenders Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty. T-Paw, in particular, is staking everything on becoming the “true conservative alternative” to Romney via a strong showing in Iowa, which he hopes to leverage into a breakthrough in South Carolina and beyond.

But aside from candidates, the social-conservative activists derided by Cullen, who are powerful in Republican politics in many parts of the country, have reason to defend their especially strong ground in Iowa. Their harsh reaction to Daniels’ proposal for “truce” in the culture war reflected the legitimate fear that, once again, Republican elites were determined to consign them to the back rooms and GOTV drives of the 2012 campaign. All the endless media hype over the last two years about the Tea Party giving prominence to fiscal and economic concerns over “divisive social issues” has heightened these fears even more.

So Iowa will defend its relevance—and it won’t fight alone.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.