Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Whither Iowa? Thoughts on the 2012 Iowa Caucuses

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If you watch politics on television as much as I do, you probably have seen a great deal of hoopla surrounding the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.  This is the first test of several Republican candidates** who’ve had their moments in the sun — including Michele Bachmann (who won the Ames Straw Poll last year), Newt Gingrich (ahead in the polls in Iowa in early December), Rick Perry (ahead in the polls in mid-September), Ron Paul (ahead in some Iowa polls as little as two weeks ago), the hard-charging Rick Santorum (who could actually win tonight) and, of course, well-heeled frontrunner Mitt Romney, who ran in 2008 and whose support seems to run a steady 25% whether he campaigns hard — or doesn’t — in Iowa.

But the question remains, “Why does what the people in Iowa think of these candidates matter so much year after year?”

There’s an easy answer that goes like this:  “Well, c’mon, Barb!  These Iowans see the candidates every four years.  They’re less likely to glom onto a candidate who’s all talk and no action — that goes without saying!” 

But that’s a facetious answer.  The real reason Iowans matter so much is because most of ’em are middle-income folks and below.  These are as close to “real people” as the candidates on both sides are likely to see; between Iowa and New Hampshire, ordinary citizens get to have more dialogues with candidates than anywhere else.  And this may give campaigns like Romney’s a better idea of what middle-income people want out of their government, especially as the words “Romney” and “middle-income” go together about as well as a bullwhip and iced tea.

As a long-time political watcher, I’ve seen candidates do well in Iowa but flash-and-fade otherwise (2008 Republican winner Mike Huckabee comes to mind, here; so does 1980 Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush).  I’ve seen some candidates, like Barack Obama, do very well — surprisingly so — in Iowa, which helps them overall, yet others who’ve done well in Iowa, like Howard Dean and/or John Edwards, aren’t able to maximize their opportunities down the road and end up with that flash-and-fade effect, which looks the same regardless of party.

See, some of the candidates just peak too soon, that’s all.  Newt Gingrich seems to be one example of this, though he may well rally as he’s an intelligent, highly-seasoned political operative and if anyone can do it, he can.  Rick Perry is yet another one, though in Perry’s case he’s been his own worst enemy in the debates and that has definitely hurt him.

Over time, what the Iowa caucuses have shown is this: if a politician is smart, and can rally from this experience (whatever it may be), he or she will do well.   But you must learn from whatever it is the Iowans are telling you; if they’re saying, as I believe they are to Rick Perry, “Rick, we really like you, but you don’t have the gravitas.  You need to go work on your public speaking, develop a foreign policy, and come back in four to eight years,” the best thing Perry could do going forward is give himself a crash course in foreign policy, do his best to look like a statesman, and study up before he goes into another debate lest he have another one of those “oops!” moments.

Or if they say to Ron Paul, “Ron, we really like your energy.  You’re a breath of fresh air and we wish that more Republicans were like you in speaking their minds,” Paul needs to realize that what they’re saying, while gratifying personally, may not translate to electoral success in other states.  I’ll be interested to see if Paul can indeed follow up what I’m sure will be a very strong showing tonight — top four, easily, and he could possibly win the state as Romney isn’t beloved in Iowa — with a good showing in New Hampshire and a halfway decent one in South Carolina.  If he can do that, then he has real potential nationally.

And the guy with the most to gain — or lose — is obviously Rick Santorum.  The pundits have claimed for the past several days that Santorum will win, or come in second or maybe a close third, but that Santorum will definitely be a major factor. 

As I see it, Santorum could gain much if he wins Iowa; he’ll have instant national attention, a bigger flow of money toward him (as many people back a winner, but fewer flock to those who are seen to lose unless they’re super-committed — and those, in this crowd, mostly go for Paul or Gingrich, not Santorum), and more media types reporting on what he does every day, thus an easier way to get on free TV and make a bigger difference nationally.

But what he loses if he doesn’t come in the top four (assuming the top four will be nearly evenly split) is breathtaking, considering how far the expectations for his campaign have been ratcheted up. 

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that Romney, Paul, Santorum and Gingrich will all have around 15% of the vote (or a bit more).  I think it’s more likely than not that Paul will win Iowa because his voters are passionate, committed, will caucus, will stay as long as is necessary and are vocal about their support.  But I have a sneaky suspicion that Gingrich will do better than he’s polled, too, because the folks who are backing Gingrich do it for these reasons: he’s smart.  He has good answers in the debates.  He’s a wily, resilient old pol in the best sense of that word; he knows how to roll with the punches.  And best of all for Gingrich’s supporters, Gingrich is the only one of the lot who seems to understand that to become President someday, you must turn your liabilities into strengths.  (I’m not totally sold on whether or not Gingrich has actually done this.  But I can see that he’s really tried to do so and that attempt matters.)

And I believe that Santorum, at the end of tonight, will either be ecstatic — in that he’s greatly exceeded expectations — or crushed.  I’m unwilling to say at this time which is more likely.


Note:  As President Obama is running unopposed in the Democratic caucuses, those are expected to be far more quiet — and far less well attended — than the Republican caucuses.  (As you might expect.)**


Written by Barb Caffrey

January 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Newt Gingrich – smart? Maybe, and it’s funny in a way…

    I think he needs to hone in on his lizardness, and see if he can compete with the Sanitarium.


    January 4, 2012 at 4:00 am

    • LOL. Well, “smart” is a relative term, Lika. Newt has said plenty of things I don’t like. But as a candidate, I respect him — does this make sense? — and I think he has a good mind. He is someone who understands the necessity of compromise, too — that’s yet another reason I respect him, even though I haven’t forgotten the shutdown of the government in ’94-5 due to Gingrich and the R House of Reps intransigence . . . .

      Barb Caffrey

      January 4, 2012 at 6:48 pm

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