In this fourth edition of The Iowa Independent’s 2012 Presidential Power Rankings, the panelists give nods to their widest field of potential candidates thus far, spreading their predictions between 13 individuals. Most also see 2012 shaping up as an outsiders-versus-establishment gambit, with the establishment winning if the grassroots are fractured.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee “would be the definitive favorite had he been more aggressive about this process, and thus not allowed candidates like [U.S. Rep.] Michele Bachmann to gain some traction, and lost the support of key evangelicals like Danny Carroll and Kent Sorenson.” In addition, now that it seems somewhat more likely that Huckabee will officially enter the 2012 contest, one of our panelists believe the advantage is handed to more establishment candidates like former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “because it will further balkanize the more grassroots-favored candidates.”
Such perspectives have been culled from our staff members, additional state political reporters, party activists, academics, elected officials, political consultants and other insiders to create these rankings. While unscientific, the ranks provide insights that cannot be garnered in traditional polling or from any one pundit as to a candidate’s organizational strength in the Hawkeye State.
All those invited to participate are asked to answer one question: “If the Iowa caucus was held tonight, what would be the results?”
The rankings below provide a snapshot in time based on educated guesses and “gut instincts.” Campaigns were evaluated based on personal perceptions and input from others as to the quality of shoe-leather activity, ability to motivate possible caucus attendees and second-choice support. Panelists aren’t provided a specific ballot of potential candidates, and are free to choose from any Republican candidate — rumored or actual.
With all of that in mind, if the caucus was held tonight, this is how we think it would end.
- Mike Huckabee — The victor of the 2008 GOP Iowa caucuses returns to the top of our rankings for this edition, but only barely. Some of our panelists who had wiped him from their last rankings on a firm belief that he wouldn’t be running — and one panelists who had never listed him for the ranking series on a belief he wasn’t running — suddenly had to reconsider the pastor and why he continues to have so much of a draw with Iowa caucus-goers.
Huckabee “has a name that people recognize,” said one panelist, while another noted that when you discuss Huckabee “what you see is what you get.” Although still viewed as wishy-washy when it comes to the 2012 contests, most of our panelists view Huckabee as both charismatic and consistent — two qualities seen as sorely lacking in the rest of the potential GOP field.
“He should have the same support in Iowa, because he’s the same likable person, bringing the same message.”
What seems to keep Huckabee from totally dominating our Power Rankings week after week is his own apparent hesitation when it comes to 2012, which has subsequently lended itself to many of Huckabee’s key Iowa staff members signing with other candidates. Now that those staffers have gone elsewhere, “he needs to act fast as the activists aren’t going to wait around forever.”
- Michele Bachmann — Ten of our panelists use some variant of Bachmann “saying all the right things” to describe their justification for placing the Minnesota Republican near the top of their caucus night predictions.
“In a lot of ways she is like the Sarah Palin of 2012 — coming out of seemingly nowhere and making a big splash, mostly due to her campaign rhetoric. The question is if she can hang on to the momentum or if she has already peaked.”
Much of what happens to Bachmann in 2012 will not be self-determined, according to our panelists, but will hinge on Huckabee. If he stays away from the race, her fortunes could swell. If he gets into the race, our panelists don’t see this duo as garnering enough support between them to rank first and second on caucus night.
“Think of Huckabee-Bachmann in Iowa 2012 like Huckabee-Fred Thompson South Carolina 2008. She drains just enough support from Huckabee to deny him the victory.
- Tim Pawlenty — While many of our panelists spoke of candidate inconsistencies, or the feeling that several are trying to remake themselves publicly as we head into 2012, such feelings were most prevalent as panelists discussed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Even while noting two more key Iowa staff pick-ups for Pawlenty — Tracie Gibler and Dane Nealson — and highly effective organizing around the Ames area (home of the Straw Poll) one our panelists notes that it is getting more difficult to look the other way as Pawlenty tries on different hats.
“Pawlenty gets a plus for showing up at the Des Moines tea party rally in some bad weather. I was willing to given him a pass a couple of weeks ago for channeling Charlie Sheen when talking to the Iowa Federation of College Republicans convention, but he channeled both the “rent is too damn high” guy and Donald Trump (You’re fired.) at the tea party event. Some people can get away with that stuff. I’m not sure Pawlenty is one of them.”
Most of our panelists agree, however, that the media perception of him being less fiery and uninspiring combined with his low national name recognition is playing a role in this seemingly never-ended persona revamping.
“[Pawlenty is] still hanging around. Still not exciting.”
But while acknowledging why Pawlenty is struggling, our Iowa panelists aren’t willing to shrug it off. Most don’t understand why Pawlenty isn’t willing to grab and hold the potential “moderate middle” that seems his natural base.
Just like Barack Obama during 2008, “Pawlenty will be able to mobilize many volunteers” from Iowa’s neighbor state. “Key places in north Iowa have already been seeing his ads for years.”
Another panelist notes that he could be “the ‘conservative next door,’ the trustworthy Boy Scout in the race” and that such a strategy “may make a lot of sense when all the dust settles and the moderates are looking for a place to go.”
- Mitt Romney and Donald Trump — Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and real estate mogul turned reality television sensation Trump are currently in a dead heat, according to our panelists.
Romney returns to the rankings for the first time since our first edition in mid-March, largely due to recent polling that shows he continues to be favored by Republicans despite the fact that he hasn’t had much of a presence in the state for 2012.
“There is obvious loyalty and name recognition that lingers for Romney among Iowans — and I also think that many view him as the one candidate who could effectively run a campaign against Obama’s national machine in 2012. So, as much as Iowa social conservatives would like to put an ideologist out there for the nation, they want to win back the White House even more.”
Romney’s Achilles’ heel, say our panelists, is the fact that he pushed for a won health care reform in Massachusetts — something that was viewed as a mostly positive talking point for him during 2008.
“Romney’s solid video announcing his Presidential Exploratory Committee made a good impression on a lot of folks. Romney still has a lot of explaining to do about ‘Romneycare’ and he needs to reassure conservative voters about some of his positions, but the opening is there for him to make some progress. He may not put as much emphasis on Iowa this time around, but he may still do well if the social conservatives are split among several other candidates.”
“I was surprised by this week’s results of Public Policy Polling, in that between moderates Romney and Pawlenty, voters were more interested in Romney, even though he hasn’t visited the state much this year, and despite Pawlenty’s presence in Iowa he hasn’t made much impact … I will caveat this selection with the fact that once Romney’s name gets tied to Romneycare, as it likely will, I expect he’ll fall in the rankings. That said, the question is if the caucuses were held today, so he makes my list.”
The same polling that elevated Romney seemed to diminish an Iowa standing for Trump and, in many ways, our rankings show similar results. There was not an overwhelming majority of our panelists who placed Trump in their top five, but those who did overwhelmingly ranked him high — a situation that could be an indicator that Trump is viewed as a viable second-choice by Iowa caucus-goers.
“We laugh right now [at the thought of Trump becoming president], but a lot of us laughed when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran in California. What Trump is saying right now in the news appeals to both the hard right and the fiscal right.”
“Despite the slings and arrows of the terrified Republican establishment, the Donald has now surged to or toward the top of most polls. The more the establishment attacks him, the better he looks. Americans are sick of slick and Trump is the beneficiary d’jour of that revulsion. Republicans will turn out in big numbers at an upcoming Republican dinner. This turnout will be the first test of Trump’s appeal to the activist base.”
- Newt Gingrich — What keeps Gingrich in the Power Rankings week after week isn’t a surge of high-placement by a handful of panelists, but a steady flow of mostly fourth and fifth place predictions from a very diverse group that isn’t convinced Gingrich can claim support among social conservatives so focused on marriage.
“Gingrich seems very serious about being a candidate, particularly given that he recently hired some Iowa folks for his team. He has the name recognition and gravitas to be a favorite among Republicans. The big question mark with him will be how his political and personal baggage will play. The personal issues will bother some Republicans and both will be used as points of attack by Democrats. The question will be whether Republicans will see him as too vulnerable to such attacks.”
This edition of Power Rankings also so the most mentions ever of Sarah Palin, mostly due to her appearance in Wisconsin. “Sarah again followed up a great week with a low-profile week. This follows a strange pattern in which the biggest Republican celebrity since RR (Ronald Reagan) appears ready to sweep the nomination field with long periods of little apparent activity. But the public is still talking about her appearance before the hostile crowd in Madison and this keeps her in third place.”
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also continues to have his following among our panelists, but not enough for this edition to keep him in the top five. “I’m sticking by my prediction that there remains a libertarian bent to some GOP activists in Iowa and I can see Paul galvanize them.”
Former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive and radio talk show host Herman Cain also received more widespread support from our panelists than he ever has previously, but it wasn’t enough to pull him into our top five. “Cain has a small but devoted and hard-working grassroots organization, and might be the most dynamic speaker of the bunch. I don’t think he can win, but he can certainly play spoiler and play a role. He will be heavily courted for his endorsement (and to drop out) down the stretch like Tom Tancredo was in 2008.”
Others that received only passing mentions by our panelists were:
- Ambassador Jon Huntsman — “Huntsman doesn’t stand a chance. He’s too close to the Obama administration.”
- Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore — “He could potentially make a bigger impact if Huckabee weren’t in the race, but the network of pastors across the state he needs to do that is still pretty loyal to Huckabee and/or impressed with Bachmann from what I understand.”
- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — “Seems to have fallen off the face of the earth,” and “if anyone sees him they should signal with a flare.” Another panelist joked that Barbour was obviously hanging out with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and “arguing over what cabinet position they’d like to hold.”
Barbour announced Monday that he will not run.