The Campaign Spot

Why Must We Care About the Whims of So Few Iowans?

In the next-to-last Morning Jolt before the Christmas holiday, a look at whether Jimmy Carter sent condolences to North Korea, the cost of . . . and this assessment of what’s going on in Iowa, and doubts about why we should care so much about all that:

The Latest From — Yawn! — Iowa

I’ve noticed that in the final days before a caucus or primary, support tends to coalesce around the top two contenders. It’s a bit like Alec Baldwin’s speech from Glengarry Glen Ross: First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado, second prize is a set of steak knives, third prize is you’re fired. We can argue about whether it should be this way (in fact, I’ll argue a bit about this below), but if you’re in third or fourth place in that final week, look out. A certain segment of the voters will decide that it’s more important to help or hurt the frontrunner.

So could next week turn into a showdown between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul? A poll out Wednesday suggested that might be so.

Rasmussen: “The new Rasmussen Reports survey of Iowa caucus participants shows Romney on top with 25% of the vote followed by Paul at 20% and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 17%. Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, both at 10%, are the only other candidates in double-digits. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann earns six percent (6%), former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman four percent (4%), while one percent (1%) prefer some other candidate and eight percent (8%) are not sure.”

Our old friend Byron York highlights one point, “Results for both Romney and Paul are the highest they have yet reached in Rasmussen polling. But Scott Rasmussen notes a significant difference between supporters of Romney and supporters of Paul. ‘Romney leads, with Gingrich in second, among those who consider themselves Republicans,’ Rasmussen writes. ‘Paul has a wide lead among non-Republicans who are likely to participate in the caucus.’”

But the State Column notes that Paul has been on a hot streak in recent polls: “This is Mr. Paul’s first loss in the Hawkeye State this week. Mr. Paul won Insider Advantage and Public Policy Polling polls of likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers Monday. Mr. Paul also won a ISU/Gazette/KCRG poll of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers Wednesday. Mr. Paul held a lead of 10 percentage points over Mr. Romney in the ISU/Gazette/KCRG poll and a lead of 6 percentage points over the Bain Capital co-founder in the Insider Advantage poll.”

Jonathan Tobin at Commentary concludes, “it’s clear that Gingrich’s decline is no longer in doubt. Since his campaign was always something of a house of cards, the final two weeks before the caucus may see his support decline even further. That will mean not only an ignominious end for what seemed only a month ago to be a campaign headed to victory in Iowa but the harbinger of a swift end to his hopes elsewhere . . . Paul’s gains will be greeted with dismay by mainstream Republicans who are unhappy about this extremist’s prominence in the party, but if he is taking away votes from conservatives who want anyone but Romney, that will merely strengthen the former Massachusetts governor in the long run because any outcome in Iowa other than a Gingrich win makes his nomination more likely.

“As for Santorum, it appears his months of beating the bushes in Iowa and going to every county in the state to appeal to social conservatives is finally paying off. His support has doubled in the last month and, though it still leaves him with only 10 percent, it is clear that five percent probably came from Gingrich.”

Tom Dougherty writes at Right Sphere, “Where has the Romney move to the top come from? He has been more on message of late and that is resonating with likely caucus goers, but the biggest reason is money. Ad buys totaling $3.1 million has taken its toll on Newt and the rest of the field. Make no mistake, what we’re seeing right now in Iowa is classic politicking where money is king, followed by organization and message. Mitt Romney will continue to have more money, both in his campaign war-chest and through PAC’s that support him, than the rest of the field. His organization is vastly stronger than any other candidate and his message, like it or not, is convincing voters that he is the only GOP candidate that can make Barack Obama a one-term President.”

Having said all that, I dread the news during the rest of this holiday week and the run-up to January 3, with endless breathless Internet and TV updates each time some Floyd Turbo in one of the 99 counties reverses himself and takes back an endorsement and throws his weight behind the newest flavor of the month. Putting aside the quirkiness of Iowa, caucuses are an awful method for picking candidates for a variety of reasons — suddenly the secret ballot doesn’t matter anymore? — but high among them is low participation. The turnout at the 2008 Iowa GOP caucus: 119,000. Turnout at the 2000 caucus: 87,000. Turnout in 1996: About 96,000. Turnout in 1988: About 109,000.

Turnout has never surpassed 23 percent of all eligible Republicans, and even that low threshold was last met back in 1988. The GOP frontrunner is determined by a group roughly the size of the crowd at a University of Michigan football game. If the Iowa caucus turnout is like 2008 (could be higher), it will equal 16 percent of the average population of one congressional district.

At least in primaries, many more Republicans (and in open primaries, independents) get to weigh in on it. In 2008, 234,000 Republicans and independents voted in New Hampshire, and 445,000 Republicans and independents voted in South Carolina.


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