Iowa 2012 GOP Presidential Power Rankings: To split, or not to split

When it comes to politics, there is no denying the pull of momentum. And while it is clear that for this eighth edition of our Power Rankings U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann owns it, there is also no denying that social and religious conservatives in the state still have choices to make.

If social conservatives — estimated to make up roughly 60 percent of Iowa Republicans — choose to throw their backing behind a single candidate as they did in 2008 with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee then it is highly likely their choice will be the victor of the 2012 Iowa caucus. But if social conservatives split, our panelists believe the door has opened for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, or perhaps a candidate viewed as more middle-of-the-road, like well-connected former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

These unscientific predictions are based on the views expressed by The Iowa Independent’s team of panelists — our staff, other state political reporters, academics, pundits, party activists, political professionals and others. Unlike a traditional poll, the panelists aren’t asked to give their personal preferences, but to draw on their own experiences within Hawkeye State politics to determine which candidate has the best ground game, surrounded him/herself with the best staff and is overall running the best campaign in Iowa.

That being said, here’s how we think the 2012 caucuses would end if they were held tonight:

  1. Michele Bachmann — Momentum is an important aspect of politics in any race, and our panelists are in nearly unanimous agreement that Bachmann currently has it — even in advance of her anticipated “official” announcement scheduled for Monday morning in Waterloo.

    “Bachmann was a winner [of the New Hampshire debate] because she made it clear that she belonged on the stage with the other serious candidates. Like Sarah Palin, Bachmann has often been an object of ridicule by those on the left. Her responses during the debate were thoughtful and passionate. She was able to let people know her personal and professional history and demonstrate the charisma that has attracted a significant following among tea partiers and the Republican base,” noted one panelist.

    On Sunday evening Bachmann was in Waterloo for a pre-announcement party. Unlike most of the GOP field, she has managed to make not just days, but weeks of headlines based solely on her official bid into the race. Bachmann’s buzz wasn’t the usual noise of “will she or won’t she” speculation because everyone has known since New Hampshire that she would. Rather, talk has centered around her candidacy, her ability to whip up the base and whether or not she can bring the same ground game she employed in Minnesota to bear in the Iowa caucus.

    “Bachmann still seems to be reeling from her better-than-expected debate performance, and with an announcement coming this week in Iowa, she’d be pretty hard to beat — especially among the more evangelical GOP crowd.”

    Finally, much to-do has been made about announcements during this campaign season. Candidates have seemed to have planned and fretted over where they should be made, when they should be made and a whole host of logistical issues. Bachmann set that drama aside and appears to have managed to simultaneously make a national announcement, one in New Hampshire and one in her native Iowa.

    “If you’re searching for a candidate with diplomacy, you have to give props to the way Bachmann has handled her announcement. She included both Iowa and New Hampshire, keeping both of those first-in-the-nation giants satisfied, but did so in a way that wasn’t a turn-off to the other states.”

    According to the panelists, if the caucuses were held tonight, Bachmann would be the clear winner.

  2. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney — Pawlenty continues to be viewed as a front-runner in Iowa. This isn’t because of his charm and charisma (adjectives typically reserved for Bachmann and Cain), or because of his vast political experience (an adjective typically assigned to Romney or Gingrich), but because he’s become the squeaky wheel with the fore-thought to surround himself by an excellent staff.

    “I’ve been to multiple Pawlenty events and, when activists gather at the back of the room after a Pawlenty speech, they say the same thing: ‘No charisma.’ Although Pawlenty is a hard worker, he’s not yet generating the necessary enthusiasm to finish in first place.”

    But if Pawlenty’s goal is to simply ride the tides and stay near the top, there’s no denying that he is achieving.

    “His strategy to be the moderate next door is working, and is helping him to displace Romney as the establishment candidate here in Iowa. Fundraising still matters a lot for him, and we find out this week if he’s strong there.”

    As our panelists note, Pawlenty has been doing his best to walk a very thin line between the establishment (predominantly fiscal) and social conservatives in Iowa. It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to ever be seen as leaning one way or the other, and that he hopes straddling the fence will enable him to pinch support from the more social conservative caucus crowd while simultaneously grabbing those who dismiss Romney.

    “Pawlenty did well during the debate, but he missed a major opportunity to force Romney to answer for Romneycare. On a talk show the day before the debate Pawlenty coined the term ‘Obmneycare.’ … Not surprisingly, Pawlenty was asked about his use of the term Obmneycare during the debate and he passed up the opportunity to challenge Romney on it. On one level, declining to attack Romney directly was consistent with Pawlenty’s low key approach. On the other hand, even Pawlenty admitted later that he missed a good opportunity.”

    For Romney, the lines have been clearly drawn since 2007 and 2008, when Ames Straw Poll attendees were more than happy to take his money and provide him with a clear win, but not give him the boost he needed on caucus night to better compete in New Hampshire.

    “In a way, you’ve got to admire someone like Jon Huntsman who has said point-blank that he doesn’t give a rip about Iowa. At least then Iowans know where they stand. Compare that to John McCain in 2008 and Romney today and you can see that Caucus folk are simply left to wonder when and if they’ll have an opportunity to ask a question or see the candidate. Maybe, because Romney invested so much in Iowa during 2008 that won’t matter as much, but it is still going to be difficult for him to pull off a top three finish when he isn’t putting quality staff on the ground and isn’t making himself available for retail politics.”

    There is no doubt that Iowans want to be seen and viewed as influential in this specific election process, but an even stronger desire is to be seen and viewed as influential in future election cycles. For that reason alone some Iowans may turn the other cheek to Romney’s lack of attention and support him on caucus night as a “non-wacky” candidate that already has the network in place to launch a strong battle against Barack Obama.

    “If it wasn’t for Romneycare, I think this would be the over-riding scenario at play: Iowans shelving their pride to give the rest of the nation an ‘acceptable’ candidate so that they can live to play another day. But Romney care exists, and many Iowans believe that alone makes Romney totally unacceptable to national Republicans who have been outraged by Obamacare. So instead of that specific scenario, and given the lack of a specific break-out candidate, look for even more discussions about how Iowa ‘winnows’ and doesn’t ‘select’ the eventual nominee.”

  3. Herman Cain and Ron Paul — For our panelists, clear distinctions have emerged in this edition. The so-called “top tier” of candidates are clearly Bachmann, Romney and Pawlenty as each garnered the bulk of support from the group. Atlanta businessman Herman Cain and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who tied at several points below the pack leaders, fall into a “second tier” of candidates who are generally likeable, but who aren’t seen as necessarily having the financial backing and/or the ground game in place *yet* to move into the top slots.

    Most importantly, however, our panelists remain convinced that these two candidates — specifically Herman Cain — have the potential to break-out of the pack because of the way they connect with caucus-goers.

    “Forget the polls and the fundraising and even party leaders’ alignments. As soon as you see the line form around Herman Cain at an event, you know he’s gonna win.”

    “Cain got a jump-start from the South Carolina debate, and he didn’t fully capitalize on it. He has the right personality and presence to compete in Iowa, but he’s got to start looking more ‘presidential’ and surround himself with a staff that knows how to play in this state.”

    “Cain seems to be willing to do a lot of hard work on the ground, including several stops on the tea party bus tour. In Iowa there is no substitute for on-the-ground voter contact and he’s doing it. One commenter at the Marshalltown stop said he wasn’t used to seeing candidates come to his community, and that he respected Cain for being there. I can’t see Cain’s campaign taking off, but I can see him being in the discussion at caucus time, and doing better than many expect.”

    Most of our panelists believe Cain’s fate continues to be held in Cain’s own hands. For Paul, a previous presidential candidate with experience in Iowa, the bar seems to be set somewhat higher. Paul’s fortunes, they believe, are hinged to the rise and fall of others.

    “His Libertarian stands on marriage and drugs make him anathema to the movement conservatives, but as Bachmann becomes more serious he attracts the fringe tea partiers she’s moving away from.”

    “Paul’s indigestible 10 percent will show up and will make noise out of all proportion to their size. He could pull off a shocking second at Ames, but that’s more a reflections of intensity than of reality.”

    “Ron Paul won the straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference. This wasn’t overly surprising as Paul’s supporters tend to be very loyal and turn out for such events. That might have given him a boost, but late last week he joined with Representative Barney Frank (D-MA and definitely not a favorite of Republicans) to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana. That position is consistent with his libertarian roots, but it won’t go over well with the Republican base.”

    Paul has picked up a few key tea party-related endorsements in Iowa. While that fact doesn’t go unnoticed by our panelists, it isn’t viewed as enough — at least not in-and-of-itself — to pull Paul out of the second tier at this point.

  4. Rick Santorum — Despite numerous trips into Iowa and attempts to position himself as the most conservative candidate of all for 2012, Santorum’s placement in our rankings is dismal at best, and wouldn’t be present at all if not for ties among the top candidates listed above. In fact, his support ranks so far below the other five candidates, that we initially considered allowing the top three places, containing five candidates, to stand alone.

    Most of our panelists believe Santorum is a likeable person, but most also feel that he doesn’t have what it takes (at least at this point in the cycle) to be a true contender on caucus night or for the nomination. Santorum’s highest praise and highest ranking was provided by our most socially conservative candidates, but even they agree that a presidential election can’t be run and won solely on social conservative issues — especially when there appears to be no way for Santorum to position himself as the only such conservative competing.

    “Of all the candidates, he most meets my values, and my friends and other pro-life activists feel the same. But, there’s the fact that he lost his Senate seat. I realize that he became a punching bag for the left, and that there was a full-range and largely unfair attack launched on him. But he did lose that fight, so I’m not sure why I should believe that when those same left-wing attacks are launched again that he won’t lose again. I’m staunchly pro-life, and don’t want to risk another four years of pro-abortion Obama.”

    “Santorum is trying hard, and was great in the June 13 debate. Conservatives that I talk to that are uncomfortable with Bachmann’s lack of experience (or gender) are giving him another look. If he can maintain the stature he had in the debate the other night he can surprise, but he’s still carrying the burden of his endorsements of RINOs in recent years. Still, this field is so fluid that if he has a repeat peak performance in the Fox News debate the night before the straw poll, that could propel him to a higher finish.”

    “I like everything he stands for, but he can’t win in this field. He’s got to get a better ground game in place. He’s got to release some policy statements and try to win over the RINOs that will be out on caucus night. If he does that, maybe we can finally have a pro-life president who will actually do what he promises.”

  5. Sarah Palin — Nevermind that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hasn’t yet indicated if she will or won’t run for president. Our panelists feel that she has a better chance of exiting caucus night as a winner than former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

    So, yes, Palin does take our bottom slot this week, but it isn’t so much a love affair with Palin or a want for her to run that did the earning. Instead, the inclusion of Palin appears to be simply because the other options, even those officially announced candidates, were considered too horrible to realistically consider.

    “Remember when [Gingrich] was a conservative standard-bearer? Remember when he was the mastermind behind the 1994 Republican takover of Congress? Remember when was cutting edge? Remember when you hoped he was the nominee in 1996 and not Bob Dole? Well, all of that remembering is Newt’s problem. He’s a has-been who’s lost his window of opportunity. And since he didn’t have similar quality consultants and donors warming up his leftovers like Terry Branstad had for his, he’s playing out the string. Gingrich is like the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Kansas City Royals: Two venerable franchises with great traditions, but unable to remain competitive in the current environment.”

    “It’s possible that Gingrich will do a McCain-style resurrection, but not likely. He seems to have learned the wrong lessons from the Obama ’08 effort and actually bought into the notion that facebook and twitter count as voter contact. They don’t.”

    “Newt Gingrich is still a candidate, but it’s not clear what his campaign strategy is. A report indicated that there didn’t seem to be any effort to replace the Iowa staff that left his campaign a few weeks ago. Even worse, two of Gingrich’s top financial people also left his campaign. Gingrich claimed that he’s going to run a grassroots campaign, but it’s not clear how at this point. He has high name recognition and is well respected by the Republican base, but that’s not the same as wanting him to be the nominee.”

    For the man who formerly graced our top five rankings, Gingrich has fallen to a new low in the eyes of our panelists. No other committed presidential candidate ranks lower this week. To put that in further perspective, some of our more socially conservative panelists placed Gingrich behind openly gay political operative Fred Karger and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who supports limited abortion rights.

    As for Huntsman, several of our panelists included him in “other mentions” at the bottom of their predictions, but few felt inspired enough to discuss why he was there.

    “Jon Huntsman announced his candidacy. That doesn’t really affect the caucuses given that he has decided to skip Iowa. The media seems to like him, but it’s not overly clear why. Huntsman and Romney seem to be vying for the same set of voters. … Huntsman’s association with the Obama administration, having just resigned as the US Ambassador to China, shouldn’t be a major problem, but his positions on some social issues might be. In any case, to the extent that Huntsman will be challenging Romney in New Hampshire it may affect Romney’s strategy in Iowa.”

    “Once Santorum tanks after Ames the obvious place for the “not Mitt” voters is with Bachmann. The Iowa win [by Bachmann] will screw Huntsman’s ‘screw Iowa’ strategy, because coming out of Iowa there won’t be room for him in the news cycles.”

Our panelists believe that if the caucuses were held tonight Bachmann would garner about 30 percent of available support. Romney and Pawlenty would each get 20 percent, Cain and Paul would grab about 10 percent each and all other candidates would be in the low single digits.

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