A sleighful of GOP presidential hopefuls already has visited Iowa this fall: Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour and long-shot gay-rights Republican Fred Karger.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation 2012 caucuses may not rival 2008, when Democrats and Republicans were seeking nominees. However, Republicans’ strong showing in the November midterm election — capturing the governor’s office, the Iowa House and picking up seats in the Senate — seems to signal Iowa will be a caucus battleground for GOP presidential hopefuls.
“Iowa is still the BIG story for 2012,” said Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt. “We make the best ‘start of the presidential season’ story.”
University of Northern Iowa political scientist Donna Hoffman agrees Iowa will remain a battleground state in 2012, because the caucuses generate so much activity and media coverage.
Also, Iowa is fertile ground for presidential candidates of both political persuasions, because voter registration is fairly evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents, she said.
“In presidential elections, Iowa hasn’t swung one way or another very heavily for a while,” Hoffman said. Since 1972, Iowa has supported the GOP presidential nominee five times and the Democrat five times.
Whether Iowa continues its Republican trend may depend on how voters assess the performance of GOP majorities in the U.S. House and Iowa House, said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at ISU.
“But if the caucuses were held today, I think Republican candidates — particularly conservative ones — would be excited about coming to Iowa,” she said. “Conservative Republican presidential candidates would like Iowa’s current political environment, especially the judicial retention vote.”
Iowa voters ousted three Supreme Court justices who supported overturning the state ban on same-sex marriage.
When it comes to the 2012 general election, University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle expects Iowa to be even more competitive than in 2008. Despite Republican victories this fall, the state’s three Democrat congressional incumbents retained their seats, he said.
That doesn’t mean Obama will carry Iowa by 10 percent again, though.
“Unless the economy turns around dramatically in the next two years, (Obama’s) record will not be a particularly good one for the folks who are unhappy with him now, particularly the independent and swing voters,” Hagle said.
Republicans, he adds, will need to pick a nominee who generates more enthusiasm than Sen. John McCain. The 2008 GOP nominee didn’t mount an intense caucus campaign, because he knew his anti-ethanol position would not be popular in Iowa.
Given the strength of social conservatives in the Iowa GOP, ISU’s Bystrom said moderate Republicans might skip the caucuses or at least lower expectations by not making a “in it to win it” effort. Instead, they might concentrate efforts on winning in New Hampshire.
On the other hand, social conservatives seem to be the driving force behind GOP candidates nationally, ISU’s Schmidt said. “So if anything, 2010 made the Iowa GOP more mainstream within Republican ranks,” he said.
Moderate or conservative, Republicans skip Iowa at their own peril, said UNI’s Hoffman.
“There is so much ink spilled over Iowa,” she said. “Iowa gets so much attention, and then the others happen so rapidly that I would not skip it.”
That’s what makes Iowa such an attractive launchpad for presidential hopefuls and the media that cover them, Schmidt said.
“You can’t beat serious folks who love politics and will go out in a blizzard to attend their caucus,” he said. “The Iowa Straw Poll is a classic, and in the dead news season of summer it makes for great theater and great politics. I think we will deliver as we have always done to the news frenzy of pigs, wind energy, gay marriage, ethanol and great country cafes.”