The Iowa Caucus Will Begin to Thin the GOP Field

The Iowa caucus on Jan. 3 will begin to thin the Republican field, writes Rich Galen.

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We are now (finally) down to single digits in the number of days before the Iowa caucuses. In spite of all the research and analysis into what the caucuses have actually meant in predicting the ultimate nominee—of either party—reporters and pundits are drawn to Des Moines like moths to a flame.

Media outlets that are watching every penny in an attempt to make their financial numbers for the fourth quarter throw caution to the wind and rent ballroom and convention-center space to use as temporary broadcast and filing space.

Hotels in the Des Moines metropolitan area charge New York City rates, restaurants are full, an airline reservation for the late-deciding pundit is only available for Omaha, which is just as well because that’s the only place left to rent a car for the nearly two-and-a-half-hour drive across the flat, largely barren, cornfields back to Des Moines.The weather looks like it will be in the mid-40s during the day and mid-20s at night during the first days of 2012, but that could change, quickly, for the worse. Veterans of this event know to pack the warmest garments they own. They understand that the winter wind starts on the east slope of the Rockies and there is nothing to slow it down until it hits them directly in the butt on Grand Avenue.

For the candidates and their campaigns this is ears-back sprint time. Well-organized campaigns have been building a traditional operation in Iowa—that includes at least a “captain” in each of the 99 counties and precinct captains in as many as possible. Those captains have lists built or bought over the past months or even years listing voters who have indicated they will attend a caucus and will vote for their candidate. It also includes phone-tree volunteers who will call the people on their list who match that criterion on caucus day to see if they need a ride to the high-school cafeteria, the fire station, or wherever that precinct’s caucus will be held. It does no good to have identified a voter as a supporter if that voter doesn’t get to his or her caucus.

Worse yet is having a supporter who gets to the caucus and then votes for someone else. A simple psychological trick is to have a volunteer with a copy of the list in hand to place a sticker with the candidate’s name on the voter. The theory is, if someone is wearing a Perry sticker it’s a little harder to vote for Bachmann. But having a volunteer at every precinct door takes an enormous amount of planning and organization and probably only Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and perhaps Rick Santorum have had both the time and money to be able to do that.

The Iowa caucuses don’t generally pick the nominees, but they do tend to winnow the field. It is not unlikely to that two of these three candidates: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Santorum will bow out between the announcement of the results Tuesday night and midday Thursday. A combination of finishing at the bottom (Jon Huntsman is not actively competing), a look at their campaign’s bank account, and an examination of fund-raising trends will provide the necessary guidance.

Paul and the Super Pac associated with Romney's campaign have been running an unceasing barrage of negative ads against Newt Gingrich, which appear to have taken their toll.

Gingrich claimed at the beginning of December, in an interview with ABC News: "I'm going to be the nominee. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.” This past week he figured out the “expectation game” by saying, “My goal is to be the top three or four” in Iowa.

Gingrich has not had the money to fire back with ads of his own, and so has had to resort to claiming he will only run a positive campaign. That strategy is mindful of the old legal saying “If the facts are not on your side, argue the law. If the law is not on your side, argue the facts. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, call your opponent names.”

If Gingrich comes in fourth, that means he will have been beaten by Santorum, Perry or Bachmann, and that would be as big a blow to any remaining momentum as the news on Christmas Eve that he had failed to qualify for the Virginia primary to be held on Super Tuesday, March 6.

It is useful to remember that the Iowa caucuses are just the first stop in a process that will last until at least June as it did four years ago in the battle for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The Republican race for the 2012 nomination should be a little clearer after next Tuesday—but only a little.