Two in the Bush: Is Romney Counting His Iowa Delegates Too Soon?

Ben Jacobs on how Romney could lose delegates he’s already banking on at the Iowa county conventions.

Evan Vucci / AP Photo

This weekend, the Iowa caucuses may finally be decided—and the result could get even worse for Mitt Romney, who already had Election Night reports of a first-place finish belatedly corrected into a narrow loss to Rick Santorum.

No, there will not be yet another batch of late-arriving results or corrected returns from Appanoose County. Instead, Iowa will hold its county conventions on Saturday, a crucial intermediate stage between the precinct caucuses held on Jan. 3 and the final selection of delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign used careful planning to dramatically increase his delegate lead in the Hawkeye State by 10 at its county conventions. While the maneuver received a scant fraction of the press attention, it more than canceled out Hillary Clinton’s dramatic Ohio win, which only netted her seven additional delegates.

But the campaign infrastructure that Republican hopefuls have built this year simply doesn’t compare to that of Barack Obama or even Clinton in 2008. In fact, as the candidates try to revamp their patchwork “McGyver” campaigns for the post-Super Tuesday marathon, the Romney campaign has done little of the necessary organizing to secure the delegates it claimed back in January, according to Iowa Republicans involved in the process.

Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman, said Thursday he wasn’t sure if they had any presence in the state for the county conventions and would check. He did not respond with further details by the time this article went to press.

While Romney’s troops have been conspicuously absent, according to Iowa Republicans, Ron Paul’s campaign has been ubiquitous in the build up to the county conventions. Craig Robinson, the former political director of the state GOP who now runs the website The Iowa Republican, says Paul is the only candidate “actively out there working” in advance of the convention on Saturday. The operation has been so active, he says, that it has “actually raised some suspicions with people.” Iowans, he added, “aren’t used to being campaigned to go to a convention.”

Mary Jones, a party official in Pottawattamie County, just across the Missouri River in Omaha, predicted “the Ron Paul people will there in force” this weekend. She pointed to a lot of “Paulies” in the county, who she said are infusing new blood into her county’s aging Republican organization.

But while Paul supporters are organizing around the conventions, it remains to be seen what their efforts will yield. The Texas congressman’s campaign has long boasted of its organizing ability, and its potential impact in caucuses and other low-turnout contests. However, its continued failure to win in states like Maine, Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska, and of course Iowa where it has concentrated an inordinate amount of its energy and resources, is creating doubts about the efficacy of his ground game.

Rick Santorum’s campaign is still a fly-by-night affair that is fundamentally ill-equipped to run a modern field operation. But that’s demonstrably not an obstacle in a state where the former Pennsylvania senator pulled off a narrow victory with a dogged if undersize campaign. Santorum won by tapping into pre-existing networks of evangelicals that Robinson thinks may be quietly slipping back into action. Since his campaign focused on the party’s social-conservative base, many of Santorum’s supporters are inherently inclined to attend countywide gatherings of Republican activists held early on a Saturday morning.

But there are few signs of either Gingrich or Romney doing much in Iowa. Gingrich, who finished a distant fourth in the state in January, has staked his floundering campaign on winning the primaries in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday. Facing calls to drop out and clear the right side of the field for Santorum, he has devoted himself and his campaign exclusively to those two states in the hopes of dramatic wins that would attract and energize supporters and donors.

Romney is a different story. He acknowledged in his speech Tuesday night that “we are counting up the delegates for the convention,” and his campaign is now touting its delegate lead over his GOP rivals, who it rightly argues have no serious chance of winning the nomination, while every delegate Romney claims brings him one step closer to it. But while they may not be able to win themselves, his Republican rivals’ continued resistance has left Romney with an uphill climb to securing before the convention the 1,144 delegates needed to claim the nomination. With a challenging stretch ahead as the primary calendar winds its way through some challenging states for his campaign like Kansas and Alabama in the next week, it’s not yet clear how he’ll clear his rivals from the field—a task that only becomes harder if he can’t hold on to all of his Iowa delegates.

People have to be motivated to show up to county conventions. Vicki Bunnell, an active Republican in central Iowa’s Poweshiek County, says, “We’re not taking a poll or calling” the county convention delegates. Those who got themselves elected at the precinct caucuses in Iowa have to show up again on their own two months later for their candidate. And some Romney supporters may not want to climb out of bed for such an arcane gathering, especially if the campaign doesn’t dedicate resources to nudging them there. But if they don’t, the former Massachusetts governor may start squandering some of the delegate lead he painstakingly accumulated on Super Tuesday.