A major disconnect is underway that makes it difficult to know exactly how the caucuses would play out if they were held tonight. That is, the candidates who are surging in polling are those who aren’t spending time in Iowa, a state that values its grassroots, retail politics.
So while the field itself became clearer with the final announcements by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that they would not seek the nomination, the path out of the caucuses has become more muddy. Social conservatives are rumored to make up 60 percent of GOP caucusgoers in Iowa, and we’ve yet to see them coalesce around a single candidate. Republicans who focus more on fiscal issues also have yet to find a home within the current field.
The situation, according to our group of assembled panelists, has opened a door for individuals previously expected to do “just enough” in the Iowa caucuses due to assembled core support to grab the golden ring of victory.
Here’s how our panel, comprised of grassroots activists, state political reporters, consultants, academics and strategists, believe the caucuses would play out if they were held tonight:
- Ron Paul — The Texas congressman surges to the top of our rankings for the first time, but not without caution.
“If the caucuses were held today, [Paul] would win because he’s the only candidate with an excited base and an excellent organization,” a panelist noted.
“However, the caucuses being held January 3 could hurt him because a lot of his young voters will still be on Christmas break.”
The panelists have given props to the Paul organization for some time, and there is no denying that the Texan has a core group of supporters that are incredibly loyal and excited. The question, at least for our panelists, has always been if there were enough supporters to compete against a candidate that drew large swaths of social conservatives (i.e., Huckabee in 2008).
But, in this 15th edition of our rankings, our panelists now see a social conservative base so fractured in the Hawkeye State as to allow Paul’s seemingly limited base — that is, a base that doesn’t appear to be drawing vast numbers of new supporters — to exit Iowa with a victory.
“Paul has been back in the state, and he is drawing good crowds. But, from what I’ve seen, these are the same people who have been showing up at Paul’s events for ages. There’s not much new blood here, which made a difference in 2008, but may not really matter in 2012.”
Paul was given an opportunity to shine in the last presidential debate in New Hampshire due to its focus on the economy. The format also, as one of the panelists noted, didn’t lend itself to Paul’s past problems where his differences with others in the field were a focus.
“He’s also started airing TV ads. The two I’ve seen focus mostly on core Republican issues as one is pro-life and the other concerns national security. These should help him with the Republican base and he might pick up some supporters who are ambivalent about the other candidates. Then again, I don’t think he’ll pick up many. Those who don’t want to go with Romney will be looking mostly at other choices. Like Romney, Paul has been through this before and is a known quantity for most likely caucusgoers. As such, it’s unlikely that we would see any surge for him.”
- Mitt Romney — Speaking of the former Massachusetts governor, he and Paul are separated in this edition by less than two percent. Our panelists believe that Romney’s long-standing core support in Iowa, combined with the inability thus far of the “anti-Romney contingent” to find a suitable home with a specific candidate would allow him to exit Iowa in very good shape if the caucuses were held tonight.
“The biggest problem Romney has had in Iowa is the group of social conservatives that find him uniquely undesirable,” wrote a panelist. “Whether that is because of his religion or for other reasons, it doesn’t really matter because these are individuals who won’t simply not support him, but individuals who will actively pursue a strategy to prevent him from exiting Iowa with a victory. In the past that has meant some supporting a candidate they otherwise would not, just because they see an opportunity to elevate someone ahead of Romney.
“I think we saw that in 2008 with the Arkansas governor. Yes, Huckabee had good support, but there were some who viewed his candidacy as the anti-Romney campaign, even when they knew Huckabee was not likely to go the distance.”
And that last point of electability might be the one place where Romney bests Paul and other members of the GOP field.
“His support has been steady. He has had good debate performances and is generally well versed on the issues. He isn’t great at retail politics, but isn’t horrible either. People know his weaknesses and may be willing to look past them if they believe he has the best chance to beat Obama, which is the key factor for most Republicans. To the extent that the ‘not Romney’ candidates continue to split the support of both social conservatives and tea partiers, Romney could be the caucus winner.”
Another panelists put it even more bluntly, “Regardless of how hard Romney is working Iowa, he still looks like the candidate most likely to defeat the President due to his message discipline.”
- Herman Cain — The Atlanta businessman is seeing a national surge, which didn’t go unnoticed by our panelists. But it is also difficult to see a path to a Cain victory in Iowa due to lack of organization.
“Each of the candidates have come to Iowa, stood up and presented themselves as ‘not Romney,’ but that can only take you so far — as they’ve all hopefully realized by now. Cain was one of many and found to be lacking shortly after coming on the scene. Iowans are willing to take another look, but there had better be some substance there this time around or it will be a very short look.”
Cain has another big problem in the Hawkeye State: visibility. He hasn’t returned to Iowa since the Straw Poll, which makes is rather difficult for grassroots activists to kick the tires. He does, however, plan to return to the state this weekend and those stops will likely provide a clearer picture of his caucus hopes.
“I do love to hear Cain speak. I like his passion and the energy he leaves behind in the room. But if he isn’t going to be in Iowa building that energy, building an organization that will push people to their caucus site, he isn’t going to do well in Iowa. He has got to be on the ground, and he’s got to be serious. We’ve already got the ‘teleprompter president’ and Iowans don’t want another person who can speak well but accomplish nothing. He’s got to show us more than a good speech.”
Another panelists agrees. “Cain could argue that he’s managed to increase his popularity in Iowa despite not having been here in over two months. That’s true, but there’s a big difference between telling a pollster that you like Cain and whether you would go out to caucus for him on a January evening. Like Bachmann and Perry before him, Cain is — and I hate to use this phrase, but I suppose it fits — the flavor of the month. In other words, the candidate that many are looking to at the moment to fill the not-Romney slot. … Right now, there are probably enough supporters who would turn out for Cain that he would finish in the top five, but I think he has a lot of work to do to seal the deal, and it doesn’t seem that he’s planning on doing it.”
- Rick Perry — The honeymoon has officially come to an end for the Texas governor.
There is one aspect of Perry’s candidacy in which our panelists all agree: horrible, horrible, horrible debate performances. While national debates typically aren’t enough to toss someone out of the running, especially in retail-heavy Iowa, they do make an impression.
“Perry remains on a downward slide, with no end in sight until he finds a game-changer.”
Perry has been back in Iowa and has emphasized his successes in meeting one-on-one. He has reached out to Iowa supporters and potential supporters in the wake of his dismal debate performances. But it might be too little, too late.
“There was a rocky start for Perry in Iowa to begin with because of the way his announcement seemed to step on the Ames Straw Poll. It was good that he came into the state right after that announcement and began retail politics here — something he seems to be pretty good at doing. But no matter how much I like him as a person, no matter how much I think he might be a good leader, all I have to do is imagine him on a national stage with Obama and I cringe. We can’t afford another four years of Obama, and the general election isn’t a retail contest.”
- Rick Santorum — After many months of beating the Iowa bushes, it appears that the former senator from Pennsylvania is finally beginning to gain traction in Iowa.
“Santorum continues to put in the most effort in Iowa. He raised less than a million dollars for the third quarter, but he is keeping his spending low. Santorum may very well be the ‘under-the-radar’ candidate of this caucus season. Because of his lack of finances he’s been relying on grassroots campaigning. Moreover, he’s bee going to many of the smaller counties that other candidates have not. At last count Santorum has been to nearly 70 of Iowa’s 99 counties. That effort may not be showing up in the polls, but it might do well for him on caucus night.”
“We know that some Iowans have been sampling the candidates and hopping around quite frequently. First they were with Huckabee, then moved to Bachmann and then to Perry. As each of those campaigns have fallen off — at least Huckabee was by his own design — those tepid supporters are looking for a home. Some have gravitated to Cain, but others are moving toward Santorum. All Santorum needs to do is keep them, and not make any big mistakes. His base will grow.”
It’s difficult for our panelists to predict if a compressed caucus season helps or hinders Santorum, who is mostly considered a “slow burn” candidate. Obviously, he doesn’t have the support to win the caucuses if they were held tonight, but the vast majority of our panelists view him as someone who’s going to stick around and gather up the stragglers left behind when when the aforementioned ‘flavor of the month’ isn’t quite as tasty.
“Each day that Bachmann fails to go on offense, and Perry continues to implode, increases the chances he will be the surprise of these caucuses.”
For the first time in weeks, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann failed to garner enough support to be listed in our top five. She came in sixth for this edition, only a hair behind Santorum.
Bachmann appears to also be suffering from the syndrome of electability and, interestingly enough, her messaging in Iowa for caucusgoers not to “settle” seems to be somewhat backfiring.
“When [Bachmann] told us to support our values, I understood what she was saying. She wants us to support what we believe in our hearts, to vote and caucus based on our principles. But we already tried that with Huckabee and that got us McCain and we lost the White House. So if the choice is between supporting someone who is 100 percent in alignment with my values or someone who is 70 percent there, but the lesser candidate has a better chance of winning the White House, why wouldn’t I support that other candidate? When everything is said and done, I have to think that 70 percent is better than nothing.”
The panelists agree that Bachmann has a good ground organization in Iowa, but also that she has faltered in overall messaging and by making some big mistakes on the national stage. Retail politics has long been a hit-and-miss game for the Bachmann campaign in Iowa, with the team doing excellent at one event and being plagued by missteps at another. If there was a time for her to rise up, meet the challenge that she’s been presented, this is it.
“I don’t care about flowery speeches. I don’t care about what color her clothes are or if her make-up is perfect. I care about her passion, and I’ve not been seeing it lately. She was hit hard when Perry entered the race, but she has an opportunity to not only win those supporters back, but to show that titanium spine. But if she doesn’t really put herself out there over the next month, this campaign is a loss.”