Iowa 2012 GOP Presidential Power Rankings: It’s time to get your ground game on

(Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Stefano Brivio)

The Republican field hasn’t significantly shifted in terms of rankings placement since our last edition, which belies the fact that individual percentages for candidates continue to shift dramatically. What can be said with a reasonable amount of certainty is that there is no clear and current GOP frontrunner in Iowa.

The predictions and opinions reprinted below are provided by a group of state panelists comprised of academics, grassroots activists, political reporters and consultants. While unscientific, the rankings were proven to be a valuable source of insights into the 2008 Iowa ground game on both the Republican and Democratic sides of aisle. Panelists are not asked to provide their picks if the caucuses were held tonight, but to draw on their own perspectives and knowledge of the caucus process to say who has built the best organization, has momentum or spark and is likely to exit caucus night with a victory.

That being said, if the caucuses were held today, this is how the panel believes the night would end:

  1. Rick Perry — Don’t let the top placement in the rankings fool you. In relation to our last rankings, in which Perry was given a clear nod toward victory, the panel now seems much more hesitant.

    Roughly 1 percent separates each candidate from first to fourth place ranking, showing how closely the panelists believe the nomination race to be at this point.

    “This is where polls and money don’t matter nearly as much in the Iowa Caucuses as the media thinks they do,” a panelist said. “The reality is the Caucuses are about mobilizing the most committed, and I can’t tell you how many of those people I’ve heard from in the past week who think this is Fred Thompson all over again.

    “Issues like this support of the TARP (which he was caught lying about), endorsing Rudy Giuliani, and Gardasil just aren’t going to play in this environment. He may be stronger elsewhere with a larger voter sample that doesn’t vet the issues as much as Iowa conservatives do, but the idea he’s just going to cakewalk through the Caucuses just isn’t happening as things currently stand. This week couldn’t have gone much worse for Perry.”

    Another panelist notes that Perry seems to be the default candidate for those that choose “anybody but Romney — except Bachmann.”

    “I’m not convinced he has staying power.”

    What most panelists believe has kept the Perry campaign a tiny notch above the others is the acquisition of former Tim Pawlenty staffers, who are widely believed to offer a significant jump start to his Iowa ground game.

    “His organization might still not be as developed as Bachmann’s, and maybe Paul’s, but more caucus-goers are seeing him as the ‘not Romney’ candidate most likely to beat Obama.

    “Of course, as the perceived frontrunner he is drawing attention from the other Republican candidates as well as Democrats. Naturally the latter are trying to characterize him as too extreme. One example of this was Perry’s use of the phrase “Ponzi scheme” to characterize Social Security. It turns out, however, that many others, including several prominent liberals, have also used that term. Perry is getting hit from the right on the HPV issue. Perry will need to perform well (or at least better) in the next several debates, but he should be able to improve with more experience.”

    Following the last debate, where Perry was directly questioned by Bachmann and Santorum regarding his use of executive order to mandate a HPV vaccination for pre-teen girls, one of our panelists chose to remove Perry completely from the top five.

    “You might notice that I didn’t include Perry this time. That was on purpose because I don’t see him as appealing to most Iowa caucus-goers anymore. Not only did he not provide a good answer about his HPV requirement for little girls, but he attempted to use the pro-life banner as a shield. That’s not going to be acceptable to Iowans, and they aren’t going to forget.”

  2. Ron Paul — Although conventional wisdom has argued that Romney might be the one to benefit from the ongoing squabbles between Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, our panel predictions show that there is another option in the form of the Congressman from Texas.

    “Ron Paul is probably the biggest beneficiary of the in-fighting among the media-dubbed favorites,” a panelist wrote. “Paul doesn’t have Romneycare, a Gardasilgate or a set of Bachmann-esque gaffes so he’s the logical landing-point for voters turned off by those other guys’ baggage.”

    The rub for the Paul campaign seems to be that while there is nearly unanimous agreement among the panelists that there is an undeniable swath of loyal followers behind Paul, there is little being done to bring new ones.

    “I’m starting to feel like a broken record about Paul, but it’s still true: his followers are loyal and will turn out for him, but he’s not expanding his support to the broader Republican base.”

    Another adds, “Nothing will shake loose his 10 percent of the caucus electorate, [but] his best hope for third is a caucus night blizzard that keeps the less devoted supporters of other candidates away.”

    There is no doubt that Paul’s long-term fiscal message resonates, but there is also no doubt that there has not been enough grassroots effort by Paul supporters and staff to capitalize on that message or to take advantage of the opening such on-going battles between other candidates presents.

    “Instead of running ads attacking Perry, he should be running ads promoting himself,” a panelist said. “Or, better yet, spend that money on grassroots outreach. Bring some high-profile surrogates into the state that will not only re-energize his already loyal following, but that might have the potential of bringing a few new bodies into the fold.”

  3. Michele Bachmann — Never forget that it was only a few weeks ago that the Bachmann campaign seemed poised to roll out of an Ames Straw Poll victory and straight into caucus night glory.

    “I like Bachmann. I really, really like Bachmann. I wish she could just keep her own foot out of her own mouth,” a panelist lamented, after recalling her “stellar” debate performance in Florida when she called Perry on the HPV mandate, then went on to make media statements not consistent with the facts about the HPV vaccine.

    “You want to stand up and cheer, ‘She got him! She got him!’ But then she opens her mouth and the rest of the week we hear more about her misstatements than we do about Perry’s wrong-headed executive order. It’s infuriating.”

    What our panelists see, however, is continued potential — if not for the candidate herself, then for her Iowa team.

    “Bachmann, long since counted out by the national media, actually maintains a more significant Iowa infrastructure than she is credited for. The volunteers who powered her win in the straw poll haven’t abandoned her even as her national polling numbers have cratered.”

    While in other parts of the nation using the term “volunteers” may not offer much inspiration, such individuals are worth their weight in gold during the caucuses. Not only do they provide shoe leather for the campaign in the lead-up to the contest, but they serve very distinct roles on caucus night. And, as the panelists have previously noted, Bachmann’s core of support comes from neighboring Minnesota, which should be able to produce a host of additional volunteers who can’t caucus, but can drive people to caucus locations, phone bank and perform other grassroots tasks on behalf of the Congresswoman.

    Another plus for Bachmann seems to be the fact that absence has made the Iowa heart grow fonder. During her recent campaign stints in California and Florida, there were no Iowa voices complaining about her perceived inability to perform retail politics; no “compare and contrast” moments between herself and Perry or any other candidate. She has appeared confident in news clips and debate footage that has filtered back into Iowa, and her events in the Hawkeye State Monday provided a glimpse of the candidate with whom so many became enamored weeks ago.

  4. Mitt Romney — It may seem a little odd to be comparing Romney with Ron Paul, but there is a correlation between the supporters both have garnered in the Hawkeye State. That is, they both have core groups, which are very unlikely to glance at another candidate.

    Unfortunately for both men, those core supporters are not expected to be enough to produce a caucus win. And, in Romney’s case, with a GOP base nationally circling around Perry’s wagon, he needs a strong Iowa finish — not necessarily the gold ring, but in the top three — to go hand-in-hand with his expected strong New Hampshire placement.

    “Romney’s strategy so far seems to have been to lay back and let the other candidate fight among themselves. This work to the extent that Bachmann knocked out Pawlenty and none of the candidates seemed to be gaining much on him in the national polls. Now that Perry has taken an often double-digit lead in several national polls it appears that Romney may be reconsidering his strategy.

    “Following the California debate Romney’s camp issued statements saying that Perry was ‘reckless and wrong’ on Social Security. The problem for Romney is that’s not what most Republicans think. Romney may be trying to position himself as the more mainstream candidate for a general election, but he has to get the Republican nomination first. Even so, to the extent that he’s willing to engage Perry he may generate more interest in his own candidacy and that should help him in Iowa, particularly if Bachmann is fading. Along these lines, Romney may be expecting to win New Hampshire and Nevada. If Perry wins Iowa and South Carolina it would mean a huge showdown in Florida. That may be the reason Romney is playing up the Social Security issue.”

    Overall, Romney’s biggest attribute might be that many still consider him the one who can best take on Obama in 2012 and reclaim the White House — a perception that is not without its appeal to Iowa conservatives, even those more concentrated on social issues.

  5. Rick Santorum — With the top four candidates in a nearly dead heat, Santorum is the clear frontrunner within the lower tier of candidates that includes himself, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

    There is also a belief — albeit dimming — that Santorum has the ability to move forward in Iowa. He has an appealing message for Iowa Republicans, performs well on the stump and charms many who meet him in one-on-one retail situations. What is seen as holding him back is organization and resources.

    “He’s been right there with Bachmann in deconstructing Perry, and at time has even made more effective arguments. However, until he acquires the resources to more effectively get his name and message out there, he remains a spoiler in the race.”

    “Santorum has regularly been seen as the candidate who can most forcefully articulate the conservative position on a range of social issues. His passion and willingness to work hard allowed him to come in fourth at the straw poll. Lately he’s been able to do a better job of discussing fiscal and other issues he championed while in the House and Senate.

    “He isn’t surging, but at least he’s holding steady (which admittedly isn’t saying much). On the other hand, he doesn’t have the executive experience that Perry has, so he may not be able to get much traction, even if Bachmann continues to fade. That said, Santorum scored some significant points against Perry over the HPV issue in the Florida debate. Unlike Bachmann, however, he wasn’t perceived as having gone too far. Thus, he may now have a slightly better chance of positioning himself as the not-Romney and not-establishment candidate.”

    Although there are many social conservatives in the GOP race, Santorum struck out in Iowa to establish himself as the most conservative of all the conservatives. To his credit, and likely his detriment, he has succeeded and called his own electability into question. In response, Santorum has taken to discussing his political tenure on behalf of Pennsylvania, noting that he won in that state, which leans blue, and he did so without compromising his conservative principles. It’s a good argument, but it has a double-edge because it forces Iowans to remember that although he may have won previously, he didn’t win the last time he was on the ballot.

    “Hard-core social conservatives will rally around Santorum, then claim that they stand alone for values against an increasingly evil world.”

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