“It’s gonna be Romney, and the party is miserable,” observed a Republican agent just back from the presidential contest in Iowa. “One day Bachmann, the next day Perry, then another day Cain, now Newt. The flavor of the day will pass. Why do many Fox contributors become candidates? It gets you in the debates and polls. But it doesn’t stick. Iowa is about paying an organization to show up. They are used to it. It’s an entitlement to Iowa. First in the nation means mercenaries, buying up the talent, then bringing the people you paid for to the caucus.”
With about seven weeks to go to the January 3 caucus in Iowa, I enjoyed my conversation with a shrewdly cynical professional who can explain what’s the matter with the Iowa primary, why we see such helter-skelter in the polling that swings from challenger to challenger while the Old Reliable Romney never goes down or up, just hangs onto his unshakeable twenty-something plateau.
“You gotta have money to get the people out,” continued my informant. “It’s a muscle caucus, not a message place. They are used to it. You need money to hire the guys who are well connected to make sure the right people get to the caucus night. It’s not a vote; it’s a paid event. Romney, having waited for the other candidates to blow each other or themselves up, he can buy himself a victory gradually and steadily. Run around Iowa in person a little, get your guys to buy everyone you can, and get them to come out. Romney set this up perfectly. He learned from the last time, when it cost him too much money for not much. He set this up so whatever happens in January, it will be non-threatening to him. Then he goes and owns New Hampshire.”
I asked if Romney knew beforehand that the party would seek an anti-Romney candidate and that the others would keep exchanging the same 20 percent bump in the polls.
“All they’re seein’ in Iowa is the Fox News stuff. The Des Moines paper is lefty. Conservatives in Iowa, I mean the real base, they watch Fox News and pick up the flavors of the day. You notice that Romney doesn’t move from his original support. No one else has any money to buy the base for themselves and keep it. The base sort of wanders around in the polls. There never was an alternative to Romney that could afford to hold onto the base. The conservatives chase non-viable alternatives. Whoever was on Fox that day or week gets more attention than anyone else until the next thing makes them old news from last week.”
I agreed that many have noticed that a surprising number of Fox News regulars do suddenly poll well for the nomination in Iowa without doing much to deserve the attention—Palin, Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum; but then just as suddenly, they don’t do well, and it’s someone else’s turn. Romney and Paul, being brands left over from 2008, with veteran caucus-goers to rent, just float along without much excitement or Fox TV time. I asked about Perry.
My observer was blunt about the Texas governor, and this was even before the brain-freeze moment in the Michigan debate. “Perry pierced the formula at first, when he skipped the [July Iowa] straw poll. The straw poll is a joke. You don’t have to buy your way onto the straw poll to be on the straw poll. Being on Fox puts you on the straw poll. But Perry collapsed because he was an imbecile afterward. Still, the right guys in Iowa are always looking for the steadiest, longest paycheck. When Perry jumped in, they thought, we’re gonna be paid until he goes through the caucus in January. The guys Perry hired will be there in January. But you can’t bring enough people to the caucus vote, because Romney and Paul already own a lot of loyalty. That’s why Perry is running ads. You don’t have to run ads in Iowa. It’s about the money in the right hands for turnout. And there are only so many right hands in the state. The Iowa Republican Party is dysfunctional. It’s the mercenaries who matter.”
I summarized the best I could to make certain that I understood the process. Mitt Romney learned in his 2008 failure that Iowa is not about polling, ads, or popularity; it’s about hiring agents for the long haul in order to corral caucus attenders for a bitter winter night. The conservative base, unhappy with Romney, has gone in search of a rival, but no rival other than Perry comes with enough money to interest the party regulars used to being rented for months on end. Instead, those Iowa Republicans who are not paid to work for Romney or Perry, watch Fox News for clues on who is the new celebrity. This explains why not Bachmann, Paul, Perry, Cain, or now the newest brand-name—Newt Gingrich—can hold on to to an apparent duel with Romney. The cycle is a thrilling theater piece, like the Great and Terrible Oz that is actually Fox News, breathing fire and fretfulness while the transfixed audience swear to keep its disbelief suspended, to never look at the surprisingly Rovian-looking fellow behind the curtain. Fox News puts forward the false anti-Romney. Romney waits, and the false anti-Romney implodes in smoke in time for the next version.
“That’s close enough, and don’t flatter yourself about the Wizard of Oz thing,” my well-paid informant concluded, on his way to preparing for the general election. “I’ve never seen lethargy like this year. The Democrats can’t even get excited to fight. Brain dead. Even in ‘06 there was excitement when you were goin’ down the ----. Barky will probably lose. But the GOP is wiped out, too. Fox does okay either way. If Romney wins, they can attack him as a phony conservative. If Obama wins, they can attack Romney as a phony conservative who failed and then go back to defending their audience from the One. It’s a beautiful thing.”