Tuesday, January 03, 2012
Who wants what in Iowa?
Today, January 3rd 2012, marks the official start of the 2012 presidential election campaign, as Republican voters go to the polls in Iowa to apportion 28 of the 2,286 delegates to the Republican convention in Tampa in August. They will gather at 7pm in caucus halls to hear speeches from representatives of each of the candidates, and then they will cast their vote for their favourite. The delegates will be assigned to the candidates in proportion to their share of the vote. Only a small fraction of registered Republicans will turn out; those voters in turn will be a much smaller fraction of the state’s total number of registered voters. But the results might just propel one lucky candidate all the way into the White House; for some less lucky ones, they will spell the final end of their political careers. The race to become America’s next president is now officially beginning.
Most years there is a clear favourite by this point, but this year the results are impossible to predict. Iowa’s voters have churned through every single one of the candidates in their search for a front runner, with the exceptions only of Jon Huntsman, who long ago wrote the state off, and Rick Santorum, who is currently on his way up.
The reason why they’re churning is that the clear front runner in the national race is Mitt Romney, but no-one really likes him. Over many months, he has kept a steady 15-25% share of the vote in the polls as others have come and gone. His stability is reassuring for his campaign, but worrying too: a front-runner as well established as he is ought to be polling higher, and the only reason that we’ve seen such a parade of also-rans in the lead is that a huge number of Republican voters are desperate to vote for anyone other than him. That could very well deliver first place in the state to someone else.
That wouldn’t be a disaster for Romney, though it would be embarrassing. Unlike in 2008, when he bet heavily on winning Iowa and lost it to Mike Huckabee, Romney’s strategy this year was to not focus too much on Iowa and to home in on New Hampshire instead. Now, as the voting starts in Iowa, Romney’s lead in New Hampshire looks unassailable with a week to go until the primary. A second place finish in Iowa would represent something of a triumph for his campaign, although it would be pretty embarrassing if he came behind Rick Santorum. Expectations for his Iowa performance have been rising in the last couple of weeks though – particularly since he threw a lot of resources at the state to beat down Newt Gingrich – so anything lower than second would be a setback. No matter: his firebreak in New Hampshire will remain intact. The Romney campaign’s hope is that Iowa won’t matter too much in the long run. This is a hope shared by Jon Huntsman, who has staked everything on New Hampshire and hasn’t campaigned in Iowa; for him, anything better than seventh out of seven would be a big achievement.
All the other candidates, however, are hoping for Iowa to really matter, and to give them a big boost. A top three finish would be perfect – but there are five more candidates. Not all of them will do well. Best placed to get that all-important boost to their momentum are Ron Paul and – bizarrely, if you’ve been following this for a while – Rick Santorum, who was for a long time a no-hoper.
Ron Paul has many strengths in this election season. His libertarian policies (and his genuine and long-standing holding of them) have impressed many voters, and he has been able to build a very strong base of volunteers who are young and have a lot of free time. They will go out and shepherd voters to the caucuses across the state, and they will speak very passionately on his behalf. His fundraising is also excellent, and he has been able to bombard voters both with negative ads impugning his opponents and positive ones extolling himself. That kind of strong organisation is a major factor in winning caucus states; the passion factor is one of the things that helped Barack Obama win Iowa in 2008. It would not be a surprise at all if Paul pulled off a convincing win in the state given the low intensity of voters’ support for Romney. If it works, Paul will be hoping to achieve similar results in other caucus states, where voters need to be very motivated in order to show up, all the way through to the convention.
For Rick Santorum, the hope comes from the chance for a breakout. He has been languishing at the bottom of the polls for a very long time, and it’s quite telling that the votes of the anyone-but-Romney crowd cycled through every other candidate before landing on him. It may be that his moment in the sun has only arrived at the time that it has because every other candidate has been found wanting. Still, that could prove very fortuitous for him. In recent polls he has bounded into third place. If enough socially conservative voters conclude that he is the best non-Romney option going, then he could very easily pull off a big surprise. Motivating the socially conservative to win Iowa is a proven strategy: Mike Huckabee won the state with it in 2008. To really pull it off, you need to have the bona fides with your base that Huckabee (a former Baptist minister) had, and Santorum really does have them, with none of the gaffes that have marred the campaign of Michele Bachmann. A third place or higher finish would be a huge boost to him, but perhaps not a permanent one. He has been campaigning almost entirely in Iowa and his chances of success in the later states may not be high. But momentum can be a magical thing.
Both Bachmann and Rick Perry will be hoping desperately for a bit of that momentum as they have languished at the bottom of the pack in recent weeks. Both were once front runners in the state, but voters have largely abandoned them after a series of gaffes. They would really need a finish that beats expectations – realistically, in the top three – to get back into the running. Perry’s well-financed advertising may make a difference. Bachmann’s strong rapport with her tea party base is more likely to – she has a reputation for being well-organised in Iowa. But for both, things aren’t looking good, and it will be a long way from Iowa through inhospitable New Hampshire to get to South Carolina, the next state where social conservatives will be in with a big chance. Whichever two out of Bachmann, Perry and Santorum do worst will probably come under a lot of pressure from party insiders and donors to make way for the one with the best chance of success, which means that there’s a strong chance that two of them will end their runs in the aftermath of Iowa. At the moment those two would probably be Perry and Bachmann, but things are very fluid indeed, and caucuses can be unpredictable.
Newt Gingrich is also still skulking around. After brazenly proclaiming himself likely to be the nominee about a month ago, he is now playing down expectations for Iowa, telling reporters that he doesn’t expect to win. After the cold shower of negative attention that accompanied his surge in the polls, many voters have now been thoroughly scared away from him and he will struggle to bounce back again. In Iowa at least, he will probably not make the top three, which will be a disappointment for him. Unless he comes dead last his campaign will probably limp on for a while, but it seems likely that it will be only a matter of time before he folds. As he never tires of telling people though, he’s bounced back before!
To sum up, then: Romney, Gingrich and Huntsman are all in damage control mode, trying to avoid a finish below 2nd, 3rd and 6th respectively. Santorum and Paul are hungry for the upside of a better-than-expected result, hoping for 1st but probably happy to settle for top three, while Bachmann and Perry will be desperately hoping for anything higher than 5th to keep their candidacies alive. Not all of the candidates will get what they want, and some may well drop out. But who will it be? Impossible to say. My gut tells me that Ron Paul has the best chance of pulling off a victory, but in a race this unsettled, only the results will tell. It’ll be a very interesting count!