For the past eight months, a group of volunteer Iowa activists have been contributing to these Power Rankings and attempting to answer what GOP candidate is positioned to capture caucus gold if the event was tonight.
The panelists have watched as candidates entered the race, surged to the top and then were found to be lacking the necessities that lead to a caucus win: consistent messaging, grassroots organization and activist energy and loyalty.
The panel, which is comprised of our staff, academics, political consultants, GOP activists, local party officials and other state political reporters, is well positioned to gauge the strength of the campaigns in Iowa. So these rankings, although unscientific, offer a unique view of this particular snapshot in time.
Since only 57 days remain before Iowans gather at their caucus sites and recent polling has shown nearly 75 percent of all likely caucusgoers to have only soft support for a specific candidate, the snapshots being provided become even more important. On caucus night, it comes down to momentum and organization — who has it, who has honed it and who is ready to exploit it.
And with that, here’s how we think the Iowa Caucuses would end if they were held tonight.
- Ron Paul — The Texas congressman remains at the top of our rankings for the second week because our panelists generally see him as the GOP candidate who currently has both an energized base and grassroots organization.
“Once again, baggage is creeping up on everyone else, but Paul is traveling lightly. When there’s so much negative coverage floating around, voters are going to turn to a guy like Paul who is seen as genuine, even among people who don’t agree with him on all the issues,” said one panelist.
Another added, “I don’t think polls accurately show his support, especially with young people, and he’s been advertising quite a bit. Plus I think he draws a different base of support than the anti-Romney, evangelical crowd.”
Although nearly all of our panelists placed Paul in their top three finishers, it remains clear that the scope of the Power Rankings — the fact that we try to determine how the caucuses would end if they were held tonight, and not necessarily gauging placement on the actual caucus date of Jan. 3, 2012 — benefits Paul the most.
“He remains the candidate in the race with the best combination of an excited base and quality organization, which is the best in the state. I personally saw his organization pull in over 500 people on a Saturday morning to a National Federation of Republican Assemblies event, and he was the only candidate with any real support there. However, the January 3rd Caucus date does not work in his favor.”
Given the excitement Paul has generated at Iowa appearances and given his campaign’s outreach through both paid advertisements and constituent groups, there is no denying that he would have a very strong showing if the caucuses were held tonight. He also benefits from a fractured Iowa GOP, which hasn’t yet launched a solid rally around a specific candidate. But if that happens in advance of Jan. 3, it remains unlikely that Paul could survive the onslaught.
“I’m not disparaging Paul’s youthful base when I say that historically those young people have not been reliable caucusgoers. Yes, Paul can draw a large crowd at the University of Iowa during homecoming and relatively good weather. But what happens to Paul’s turnout on a likely very miserable Monday night in January when students remain on holiday?”
“If the caucuses were held today, the various student groups on the college campuses would likely be able to do a good job of turning out their supporters. Given the general lack of enthusiasm shown for the rest of the field, his current level of support might push Paul’s tally up. Unfortunately, when the caucuses are held on January 3 school won’t be in session and it will be harder to achieve the turnout he needs for a top three finish.”
- Herman Cain — The former chief executive for Godfather’s Pizza continues to surge ahead in Iowa, and our panelists came very close to providing him a high slot in our rankings. But, while giving a nod to Cain’s momentum, there’s also very little evidence of a strong ground game in the Hawkeye State.
In addition, while the rest of the nation continues to buzz about allegations of former sexual harassment by Cain, Iowans aren’t. This isn’t to say that they are necessarily ignoring the story line, but more that they are taking a wait-and-see approach to how it all plays out. And, some Iowans also view the controversy as a silver lining for Cain, who has received much more national attention due to this story than he’s received in months prior.
“The sexual-harassment allegations against Cain aren’t likely to do him in — true believers in ‘non-politicians’ will follow people like him anywhere. But the Republicans sense they have a chance to beat Obama a year from now, and they’re not likely to squander it on candidates with baggage who will make independent voters recoil.”
“The sexual harassment allegations are a double-edge sword for Cain: It’s baggage that’s going to turn off a lot of family voters but it’s also given him more national exposure than he’s seen. That he’s on the networks each day and on cable most hours of the day means his recognition is exploding.”
“I think it’s too early to judge the impact of the harassment allegations … I think he will be hurt long-term simply because of his campaign’s inability to effectively land on a strategy to respond to the allegations. In fact, insiders continue to tell me that Cain’s campaign is completely disorganized and has no cohesive strategy.”
Iowans have previously proven they aren’t willing to simply accept whatever candidate happens to hold national popularity, and that they are willing to ignore national distractions for a candidate that has a strong presence on the ground in the state. But the fact remains that Cain isn’t providing Iowans much of a reason to give him a second chance.
Cain hasn’t been a frequent fixture in the state, and he only recently began pushing for more grassroots organization and strategy in the Hawkeye State. What happens over the next 2 weeks will be critical in determining if Cain continues to rise, or takes another dip courtesy of the 2012 roller coaster.
“If the caucuses were held today I think the intensity of Cain’s supporters would help him carry the day. My best guess, however, is that the rally effect will fade, but other questions about his positions and general readiness for high political office will remain and his support in the polls will fade.”
- Mitt Romney — It’s been said here before and it’s worth saying again: Romney has strong hold-over support in Iowa from 2008. And although much is made of the fact that most members of the Iowa GOP are predominantly selecting candidates based on social conservative stances, there are still many Republicans who are looking more closely at perceived electability than at conservative purity.
That being said, Iowa continues to hold a risk for Romney, who continues to poll in the low-to-mid 20s. If he takes the extra step and tries to build on his current core, he runs the risk of raising expectations in the Hawkeye State — an situation he has already experienced and is unlikely to want to repeat. If he continues to ignore Iowa, he leave the door open for caucusgoers to solidify around one of his opponents and select a candidate that could also perform well among similar-minded voters in South Carolina.
“Given that the not-Romney vote is still split among several candidates, it provides an opening for Romney to come in and win the caucuses. … On the other hand, if Romney doesn’t compete in Iowa any more than he has, then the candidate who wins here might get enough of a boost to mount a significant challenge to Romney in South Carolina (if not in New Hampshire). A candidate who wins in Iowa and South Carolina would have significant momentum going into Florida. Basically, Romney needs to find a way to compete in Iowa to hold off his competitors without raising expectations for himself.”
“Whatever he says, he’s playing in Iowa, which is smart — a second place here and a win in NH could really lock things up for him early. It’s worth the risk even if he finishes third, because Paul is not a national contender.”
“I’ve come to believe that the Iowa Caucus campaign is a war of attrition. Numerous alternatives have enjoyed their moment in the sun as the ‘not-Romney’ candidate, and have withered under the increased exposure. Romney, despite not investing a lot of time or money in Iowa, continues to look like the candidate that can win the general election.”
- Rick Santorum — The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania finally seems to have established a bit of traction among our panelists.
Santorum, more than any other 2012 candidate, is betting on an Iowa victory. He’s visited all 99 counties in the state, and has positioned himself well as a social conservative dark horse. His messaging has been consistent — first telling Iowans he planned to “out-conservative all other conservatives, and then, most recently, rolling out a faith/policy platform. Where Santorum hasn’t made strides is in the realm of electability.
“He’s a second choice, but unless my first choice implodes between now and Jan. 3, it isn’t going to matter,” a panelist said. “Republicans don’t caucus the same way Democrats do and second-choices often get left on the floor or without a vote.”
“Every time he’s on the brink of a breakthrough someone else steals his thunder. Prior to the Straw Poll it was Michele Bachmann. Now it’s Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich overshadowing him. However, he’s definitely a candidate a lot of former Mike Huckabee supporters are considering, so he will be a factor.”
“Though Santorum hasn’t gotten the spotlight after touring all 99 counties, he’s probably well positioned by having spent time here and made allies in communities.”
There is also one more worry for the Santorum campaign: money.
“Along with Gingrich, Santorum may be one to benefit if Cain fades in the polls. He’s put in a lot of time in Iowa, and managed to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties, but that effort still isn’t registering in the polls. He may be the “under the radar” candidate of this cycle, but even to the extent people may begin to take a second look at him, he doesn’t have the organization in place to take advantage of a late surge.”
- Newt Gingrich — The former U.S. House Speaker continues to impress in Iowa, and appears to be positioning himself as a viable alternative to those currently sitting with Romney, but not yet 100 percent comfortable at that table.
“He could be on the brink of a surge here down the stretch, and the way he is running his campaign by being substantive on issues and taking the high road allows him to appeal to Branstad and Vander Plaats types alike. If he can stay disciplined the rest of the way, and with Gingrich that is always a big if, he will be formidable.”
“Gingrich has done consistently well in the debates. Rather than throwing elbows at the other candidates he’s kept his focus on policies and Obama. Although he can come off as too wonkish at times, most agree that he seems the one most likely to be able to go toe-to-toe with Obama in the general election debates. Gingrich had a terrible campaign rollout, and has had little or no ground game in Iowa, but that may be changing. Results of the latest Iowa Poll suggest that he may be one of two candidates who would gain the most if Cain’s support fades. Press reports suggest that Gingrich is planning to open as many as five offices in Iowa. Gingrich turned in a strong performance at the Reagan Dinner and now may be his opportunity to capitalize on those who are still searching for the not-Romney candidate who can beat Obama.”
“Many people are now giving Newt another serious look. Sometimes you have to let the smartest guy in the room solve the problem as painful as it is to do so.”
“Gingrich seems positioned to do well if Cain does fall out of the lead.”
“In my war of attrition scenerio, it’s now time for Newt to get a new look. He had his major troubles early, so it gave him time to recover and present himself to voters as the alternative to the other candidates who have not handled ‘front-runner’ status very well.”
“Anyone who has grown tired of the bickering between the candidates is going land on Gingrich or Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is seen as too soft so Gingrich benefits.”
Two former Iowa front-runners, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, didn’t garner enough support from the panel for entry into our top five finishers, but the news isn’t all bad for Perry.
“Perry seems to have stopped his downward spiral in the polls.”
Inasmuch as Perry’s debate performances were lackluster, his retail politics shine. Perry also has the luxury of good fundraising, which has allowed him to purchase time on Iowa airwaves.
“The saying goes that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but Perry has the resources to allow caucusgoers to take a second look at him.”
The panelists are having a much more difficult time evaluating a Bachmann campaign that seems to have all the right pieces for Iowa, but continues to flounder.
“Bachmann was known prior to this presidential race as a real stand-out for the GOP and the tea party. And while she continues to find support in both groups, and especially with social conservatives, she hasn’t lived up to expectations when it comes to raising funds or small group politicking.”
While recent reports of Bachmann’s New Hampshire staff quitting weren’t high on the radar of Iowans, they did pay attention the response of the campaign. At first, the campaign didn’t acknowledge or didn’t know what had taken place.
“It was a bad moment for Bachmann because it showed the vast disconnect between her grassroots and national strategies. In other words, it fed into the perception that she is one thing here and another thing there, or saying one thing here and another thing there. It brought up the reliability question and Bachmann didn’t answer.”
“She’s working harder in Iowa, but my folks in the field continue to tell me that she sweeps in and quickly out of events without doing much glad-handing or giving voters any personal time. This is a major tactical error on the part of her campaign, because she wins votes when she’s given facetime with the voters. Her campaign is not the first to completely misunderstand how to win the Iowa caucuses — Hillary, anyone?”