Republican presidential hopefuls made fewer trips to Iowa ahead of the GOP Straw Poll than they did four years ago, but party activists and political scientists warn against reading too much into downsized campaign activities.
Several factors come into play: the number of candidates, the presence of an incumbent seeking re-election, the late entry into the race by some candidates and the decision by others not to campaign in Iowa or participate in the Iowa GOP Straw Poll.
Most of all, they agree the smaller number of visits does not suggest the importance of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is waning.
“The candidates are still coming,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. After observing the full-tilt campaign activities in mid-August when candidates participated in the Fox News debate and straw poll, both on the ISU campus, Bystrom said it doesn’t feel like less of a campaign.
“I’m still feeling the love,” she joked.
GOP candidates made 113 visits to Iowa from January through August – 26 fewer than in the same months in 2007, according to a database maintained by Eric Appleman at Democracy in Action. By the end of August, they had spent a combined total of 224 days in Iowa — 64 fewer than in 2007.
Until he saw Appleman’s numbers, Bruce Nesmith, who teaches political science at Coe College, thought it was just his perception the GOP hopefuls were visiting less often. Although their activity nearly matched 2007 in August, he was struck that candidates spent 66 fewer days in Iowa from April through July than in 2007.
Sometimes it’s not the number of visits, but how candidates use their time, said Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. For example, Newt Gingrich had his own airplane when he started his campaign and did four or five events in a day.
Hagle called the “too conservative” criticism the story du jour of the 2012 cycle. He doubts conservatives are more numerous or dominant in Iowa than in, say, South Carolina.
“Sometimes and on some issues the social conservatives may be more of a force, but in 2010 and for 2012 the fiscal issues will dominate,” Hagle said. “We’ve seen a bit of this already when The Family Leader overreached with their marriage pledge and have kept a low profile since.”
Even this early in the race, “the prudent candidate balances Iowa with other states,” added Nesmith. “I think candidates in both parties can draw cautionary tales from Mitt Romney, who spent a lot of time and money here in ’07 and only seemed to slip backwards.”
“Candidates learn from previous campaigns,” Bystrom said. Romney spent a lot of time and money in Iowa in 2007 “and didn’t do him a lot of good. So I totally understand his strategy in 2011.”
Regardless of the number of visits, there’s consensus Iowa is fulfilling its traditional role.
“Iowa’s first in the nation status has once again done what it has done in the past: Winnow the field,” said Benton County GOP Chairman Loras Schulte.
Some might argue Romney’s absence makes that claim ring hollow, but Goldford said even if Iowa isn’t friendly territory for Romney and Huntsman, the straw poll-precinct caucus two-step remains relevant.
“Establishment candidates like Romney might not want to be winnowed in Iowa, but if you don’t think Iowa is relevant, go talk to Tim Pawlenty,” Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor, said. Pawlenty dropped out of the race the day after he finished a disappointing third in the straw poll.
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