If there has been a single thread that has connected the previous 11 editions of The Iowa Independent’s Power Rankings, it has been an overall feeling of discontent among Republicans as activists in the state search for someone who represents their views and that they believe also stands a good chance of unseating Democratic incumbent Barack Obama.
With the Ames Straw Poll a memory and, thanks in part to a timed entry by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, showing very little bounce for the top two finishers, our panelists seem more intent on the political end game and which candidate has the mixture of organization, charisma and “that special something” to take the race all the way to the finish line.
If the caucuses were held tonight, here’s how our panel believes they would end:
Rick Perry — Despite the fact that the governor of Texas hasn’t yet proven himself from an organizational standpoint in the Hawkeye State — and won’t likely have to in advance of the caucuses due to his later entry — our panelists cannot deny that Perry has brought something to the race that has been missing.
“Many activists have said to me, ‘I’ve been holding out for a winner!’ Republican activists may agree with the agenda of a [Michele] Bachmann or a [Rick] Santorum, but they aren’t convinced those candidates can beat Obama. There’s a buzz around Perry that says he can,” notes one of our panelists.
Others on our panel, however, are curious if Perry’s lead is more of a honeymoon period — something that will wane as the newness of his candidacy wears off.
“His current buzz does make him the flavor of the month — just like [Mike] Huckabee and [Donald] Trump before him — but there is more to him than just that,” notes another panelist. “He appeals to all segments of the party, [at least] to varying degrees. That huge undecided number that keeps showing up in Iowa polls may have found their hairstyle of choice.”
Candidates may rise on appeal, but they must have substance to win the first-in-the-nation caucuses. What the panel wants to see from Perry going forward are signals that his campaign is organizing at the grassroots level in Iowa, working the ground and drawing increased support.
“If the caucuses were held today Perry would instantly coalesce a group of former Tim Pawlenty supporters and soft supporters of others to finish very strong, but at this point in time he doesn’t have the organization on the ground to marshal enough of them to pull it out.
“Still, there is little denying the initial roll-out of his candidacy has been impressive and, if things keep trending the way they currently are, he’s the one to beat.”
Perry’s performance in upcoming debates and his interactions on the campaign trail in Iowa and other early states could still sway his candidacy further up or down. And, while it is unlikely that more fiscally-minded Republicans would be swayed by the entry of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the race, it is likely that some more socially-minded Iowa conservatives could. That could spell trouble for Perry’s honeymoon, at least in Iowa.
“While it is true that there are some who simply won’t support a woman, there are some who will — even if that woman is Palin, who comes with history. She still appeals to a segment of the GOP that feels America hasn’t been promoted in that Ronald Reagan style it should be, and there is no one, perhaps other than Reagan himself, who makes Republicans feel better about themselves than Palin. That’s her advantage over other conservatives already in the race including Bachmann, although Bachmann has been pulling such references into her own speeches. Such ‘lifting up’ by Palin will be hard for Iowans to resist.”
Michele Bachmann — For the first time since late June, the Minnesota Congresswoman doesn’t lead our Hawkeye State Power Rankings and, perhaps more importantly, she came dangerously close to being knocked out of the top two.
Since late March, when Bachmann began to seriously hint that she would pursue a White House bid, she has remained a favorite of our panelists. They viewed her as someone who could appeal to the state’s influential social conservative base as well as a candidate that could count on support from the tea party movement — both being influential for the upcoming caucuses. The straw poll should have been a proving grounds for her Iowa organizational skills (and to a certain extent it was) but, under the shadow of a Perry announcement, it simply didn’t provide a large boost.
“Winning the straw poll still has its privileges. One of those privileges is a vastly superior organization compared to a guy who’s been in the race for only two weeks, and has just made a handful of stops in Iowa while facing no real scrutiny from voters or his fellow competitors yet. That said, Bachmann is not trending in the right direction at the moment, and she needs to recapture the momentum she had heading into Ames. Perhaps letting voters see the woman of depth I have seen privately, and not the woman of talking points I often see publicly, is a good place to start.”
Another panelist notes that “Bachmann still has two big things going for her in Iowa: She’s from a neighboring state, which can only benefit her when it comes to ground organization, and she’s a known quantity.
“Let’s face the fact that despite some of rifts here in our state, many of which have been promulgated by supporters of other candidates, Bachmann is someone that activists here know and know well. There is very little shock value left when says things that maybe don’t completely add up, or when she ruffles feathers in local circles. It’s expected, and just like all other expectations in Iowa, when she exceeds them — when says things that really resonate and does well with retail politics — she really, really shines. If she comes into the state and works even the smallest bit to dispel some of the more negative press, it will do her campaign a world of good and she will win on caucus night.”
Criticisms leveled by Pawlenty that Bachmann was prone to misstatements may not have ultimately benefited his campaign, but our panelists believe they likely injured Bachmann’s, at least to some extent.
“One can dismiss occasional things like mixing up whether John Wayne was born in Winterset or Waterloo and maybe even whether August 16 was Elvis’s birthday or the day he died, but at some point one will start to wonder whether it’s just an occasional flub or a pattern that is worrisome. Recently Bachmann claimed that if she becomes president gas prices would go down to $2 a gallon. That’s not a factual mistake, but it certainly caused a lot of people, including a lot on the right, to roll their eyes. Bachmann fought hard to make herself be perceived as a serious, top-tier candidate. She needs to stop the mistakes if she expects to maintain that standing.”
Ron Paul — The biggest news to come out of Texas congressman’s presidential bid in the wake of the straw poll were news reports that he was being ignored in the wake of his strong second-place finish. Our panelists took note of the strong finish, and they continue to believe that overall Paul’s fiscal message is resonating better with state activists than it did in 2007. But when it comes to the game of expectations, they feel Paul just managed to meet them in Ames and, thus, didn’t do anything overly extraordinary to warrant higher placement.
“Paul’s supporters certainly don’t want to hear it, but he probably peaked at the straw poll,” notes one panelist. “There were plenty of stories during the last two weeks about how the media were ignoring Paul’s very close second place finish straw poll. I suspect that it was less a matter of purposefully ignoring Paul as opposed to choosing to focus their resources on candidates who were perceived as more likely to be able to capture the nomination.
“Paul received over three times as many votes at the Straw Poll as he did in 2007. That speaks to both an improved organization and more focus on his economic message. Even so, when Paul starts to speak on other issues his libertarian roots show themselves. Many Republicans are not happy with the wars we are fighting, but they usually don’t think that we should just pull back to our borders. Some Republicans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, but that position isn’t one widely held. In other words, despite his obvious success at the Straw Poll, Paul will have a difficult time appealing to a broader Republican base.”
Another panelist has already moved on to wonder where the libertarians and similar factions of the party will go when “they finally figure out that their guy is not moving forward in this process.”
“Look, there’s a lot to be said for loyalty, and there is no doubt that Ron Paul’s supporters are loyal — but I have to wonder if they’ve ever heard the phrase about being ‘loyal to a fault.’ At this point, I don’t think they are doing their candidate any favors by ramping up his expectations to levels that he doesn’t actually have the base support to meet.”
Another panelist believes Paul could have won the straw poll — and beat expectations — if it wasn’t for his debate performance two nights before.
“His organization flexed its muscle at the straw poll, and that strong second place finish came after his brutal debate performance just 48 hours prior. That tells me two things: Paul’s support isn’t going anywhere, and Paul can’t grow beyond that base of support. I believe Paul would’ve won the Straw Poll if not for his queasy answer on Iran and nuclear weapons. That moment in that debate illustrated the dynamic Paul finds himself in. The current economic climate in the country has made his base coalition more loyal than ever because he’s been proven right all these years. On the other hand, his foreign policy positions are still too far out there to grow that coalition to a winning coalition.”
Mitt Romney — There are more questions than answers surrounding the former governor of Massachusett’s campaign. That is, his Iowa strategy or, more aptly, his lack of an Iowa strategy seemed pretty well mapped out in advance of Perry’s entry. Our panelists now wonder if ignoring the Hawkeye State, or keeping Iowa activists at arms length, is going to be enough to put him in the state’s top three — something he critically needs to do, even if he is banking on a New Hampshire victory.
As one panelist notes, “Mitt still has the 23 percent he’s had since he started his presidential campaign (back in junior high school).”
But there’s more than just low poll numbers at stake. Romney was hoping residual 2008 supporters and here-and-there visits to Iowa would be enough to keep him “playable” in the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He had, for all practical purposes, conceded the state to a more social conservative candidate of the same ilk as a Huckabee — someone that the other early states wouldn’t find as appealing as his more moderate, if not sometimes conflicted, stances. But if Iowa and another of the leading four states go to the same candidate, Romney’s weak performances could be enough to shut him down before the contest moves on to states that are decided more by ad buys than retail politics (where he doesn’t necessarily excel).
“If a four candidate field emerges from the starting four states, that bodes well for Romney, who is extremely well financed and can move into a Super Tuesday situation with multiple ad buys and other voter outreach. But if Perry is able to land claim to both Iowa and South Carolina, Romney will need to provide more than just a New Hampshire victory. He will need to take Nevada, which might be possible because there is strong Mormon representation there. So far, however, I’ve not seen Romney doing retail in anywhere other than New Hampshire, and not a actively there as he did in Iowa in 2007.
“Either Romney will need to start paying more attention to Iowa, which isn’t likely given the past history, or he is going to have to start concentrating more heavily on South Carolina, which also isn’t likely given that state also has a social conservative bent, or in Nevada. He simply cannot allow any one candidate to pull more of a boost than he does from these early contests.”
Rick Santorum — Most of our panelists agree that Santorum has a loyal following in Iowa based predominantly on his rigid social conservative stances. Most also agree that his base support has not yet grown to a point of making him a real contender in the upcoming caucuses, and that they aren’t sure where he will be able to garner more supporters in this current field of candidates.
“If this was 2007, Santorum would probably be faring better than he is now,” a panelist laments. “The fact of the matter is that you can’t build a campaign on issues — fiscal or conservatives — that are also held by your opponents. He doesn’t have anything, at least not yet, that makes him stand apart from the field. He doesn’t have executive experience. He lost his last election. He doesn’t have a compelling story to tell and, as a result, he seems to be a candidate that many activists like personally but are not supporting for the nomination.”
While a handful of our panelists still envision a scenario where Santorum could play spoiler (a la Huckabee 2008), even most of those believe his fortunes, good or bad, may actually rest with the undecided candidacy of Palin.
“Obviously, if Palin enters the race, there will be automatic buzz within social conservative circles — the same circles where Santorum has made the most headway. That could spell trouble for his campaign both from a standpoint of an established base, and from the standpoint of her much greater name recognition — which might be more appealing for any undecideds on caucus night.
“On the other side of that coin, if Palin decides not to run, there could be some social conservatives that have been holding their support that will move toward Santorum, giving him a greater edge on caucus night when Iowans speak on behalf of their chosen candidates before the GOP balloting. Such conservatives can give very impassioned speeches that can really help their chosen candidate.”
Unlike Democratic caucuses where second choices can play a distinct and defining role, GOP caucuses are a single secret ballot affair devoid of realignment and viability thresholds. So, just because Santorum appears to be a second-choice candidate for many, the situation doesn’t serve him as well as it would on the other side of the political aisle.
“There is a solid base of former Huckabee supporters I know that just will never buy into Bachmann’s presidential candidacy until they have to because they’re either uncomfortable with a woman for president, and/or she has not proven to them she’s ready for the job. On the other hand, Huckabee himself has done little to hide his skepticism of Perry, who chose to endorse Rudy Giuliani over Huckabee four years ago. So who’s the alternative? Clearly not Ron Paul, who some Huckabee supporters are as leery of as they are Mitt Romney — albeit for different reasons. That leaves Santorum, who more and more has been speaking their language the past few weeks.”