The Corner

In Iowa, Cain and Romney Lead

As Bob Costa noted, the new Des Moines Register poll shows Herman Cain and Mitt Romney leading the field.

One thing that strikes me is while of course, all these poll numbers are subject to change, they don’t seem to conform to the conventional wisdom that you need to be on the ground in the early states. Romney has barely spent any time in Iowa this cycle (although he did extensively campaign there in the previous cycle), and Cain’s (relative) paucity of Iowa visits has gotten attention. Michele Bachmann, who pulled off a win at the Ames Straw Poll which is supposed to show your strength on the ground, is in fourth place, 15 percentage points behind Cain (who finished fifth at Ames) and 14 behind Romney (who didn’t even compete at Ames). Ron Paul, too, although higher than Bachmann in the poll, does not appear to have the kind of support that a second-place Ames finisher (only 150 votes behind Bachmann) should have. And Rick Santorum, who is on the cusp of being able to say that he has visited all 99 counties in Iowa, is second to last.

Maybe this will all change, and on the night of the caucuses, we’ll see results that don’t look anything like the results of this poll. But if the results do look similar, and the candidates don’t change how often they are in the ground in Iowa, is that a bad thing? The argument I’ve heard is that it’s crucial for voters to talk to a candidate about all sorts of issues and really get to know them. But, at least in my admittedly limited experience in attending campaign events in Iowa, that isn’t what happens for the most part. Sure, voters occasionally get to ask questions at town-hall style meetings and sometimes if the candidate is schmoozing briefly after giving a speech, but between the little, if any, opportunity for follow-up questions and the fact that every candidate has been drilled to stay on message and has a go-to selection of phrases to weave together on just about any political topic, it’s hard to see that voters learn any more about a candidate than they would by watching them on their TV or computer. On message is on message in say, Iowa, Tennessee, or a Fox News studio.

On the other hand, while I’m skeptical about how much voters can learn about a candidate by seeing them in-person (due in large part to how campaigns structure these events), it does seem that an astute candidate could learn a lot just from hearing how voters express their concerns and at what angle they see current issues. So I’m certainly not proposing a media-only, or mostly-media campaign here, just questioning the value of shaking tens of thousands of hands in Iowa verse thousands.

UPDATE: Just for context, note that in October 2007 the results for this poll (via Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson) were: Mitt Romney (29 percent), Fred Thompson (18 percent), Mike Huckabee (12 percent), and Rudy Giuliani (11 percent). Obviously, the final caucus results were a wee bit different …

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...