When the bigwigs of the Iowa Republican Party gather for their annual Lincoln Dinner early next month, their headliner will be Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is detouring to Des Moines in the middle of his nascent gubernatorial campaign.
A young, ambitious up-and-comer—in Cuccinelli’s case, a conservative champion who helped lead the national charge against President Obama’s health care law—traveling to the Hawkeye State was standard operating procedure, even expected, in years past. This time around, it may be an encouraging sign for Iowans. For the time being, their state still looms large in the national political landscape.
The Hawkeye State has always had to jealously defend its first-in-the-nation designation and its curious caucus process, but state politicos worry that a confluence of factors is making that task increasingly difficult. In recent years, Iowans have had to bat back accusations that its caucus process is archaic and unnecessary; that its electorate is too white, rural, and evangelical to represent the country at large; that the contest has a mixed track record of picking the eventual nominee; and that its permanent position at the beginning of the calendar is unfair.
On the one hand, the existential crisis is perennial. “There’s always an anxiety,” said GOP state Sen. Randy Feenstra. “We always want to be first, and every state in the country wants to be first.”
But this year, there was one other little wrinkle: The party crowned the wrong person the winner.
By now we all know that Mitt Romney didn’t actually win the caucuses by eight votes Jan. 3, as then-Iowa Republican Party Chair Matt Strawn declared in the wee hours of morning the next day. Instead, certified results showed Rick Santorum coming out on top by a narrow margin of 34 votes.
Exacerbating matters, Iowa GOP officials initially refused to declare a winner because results could not be verified, before they caved to pleas for clarity and called it for Santorum—a full two weeks after the contest had concluded. No amount of clarifying and backtracking, however, could retroactively award him the momentum and attention traditionally reserved for the first-place finisher. Nor could it take away the buzz Romney received for doing better than expected.
“There will be some candidates if not many in 2016 who say, 'I am not going to spend $10 million and six months of my life campaigning in a state that can’t produce a quick, accurate result,' ” said David Yepsen, a longtime political columnist for The Des Moines Register and now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale). “No question about it, the future of the caucuses is pretty grim.”
The fretting isn’t restricted to this year’s peculiar hiccups. In another troubling sign for the long-term health of the caucuses, moderate Republican candidates are deciding their path to the nomination doesn’t necessarily wind through Iowa's amber waves of grain. They include Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who became his party's standard-bearer in 2008 despite largely bypassing Iowa, and 2012 contender Jon Huntsman, who wryly observed this year, “They pick corn in Iowa. They actually pick presidents here in New Hampshire.”
Even candidates who played by the rules got shafted during this unusual nominating contest. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a social conservative who many predicted would ultimately pose a serious threat to Romney, staked his campaign on a strong performance last August in the Ames Straw Poll—a quadrennial Iowa GOP pep rally that raises money for the party and theoretically serves as a test of the candidates' organizational skills.
After coming in a distant third in the straw poll and burning through most of his money in the process, Pawlenty quickly exited the race. On the flip side, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., won the straw poll to great fanfare, only to abruptly fade into the background with the rise of other candidates. Both former candidates declined to comment for this story.
Craig Robinson, a former state party official, said that certain aspects of the Iowa process bear reexamination—particularly the wisdom of the straw poll. “I’m very fond of that event but I actually think its time has probably come,” Robinson said. "It’s a distraction for the party when it should be focused on its actual duties.”
Robinson blamed the fluid primary calendar and the uncertainties it creates for some of the problems with Iowa's caucuses this year. Others say the caucuses themselves—small neighborhood gatherings run by state parties—are the problem.
In Nevada, controversy broke out when non-Jews tried to vote at a single nighttime caucus designed to accomodate Orthodox Jews. On top of that, the state had no results from its most populous county more than 24 hours after the meetings were over. In Missouri, police were drawn to several caucus sites to maintain order when higher-than-expected turnout and hot tempers prompted unrest. In Maine, snowstorms delayed some caucuses and others scheduled their meetings for after a straw-poll presidential vote that produced a headline win for Romney.
Also consider that about 122,000 votes were cast in Iowa, population 3.1 million. In South Carolina, which has 4.7 million people, about 600,000 voted in the GOP primary.
Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, described the caucuses as double-edged swords. “In a system where most people are relying on multimillion-dollar media buys, there are some who say there is virtue in essentially holding something similar to a small New England town hall meeting at a caucus site,” he said. “But you tend to get people who are much more passionate about politics but significantly different from the general public.”
A.J. Spiker, who took over as Iowa GOP chairman after Matt Strawn resigned from his post in the aftermath of the caucus debacle, points out that Iowa fulfilled its duties this cycle: The last candidates who remained in the race were the top four finishers in the race for the nomination, while poor showings prompted two contenders to drop out. Moreover, the results showed that two very different kinds of candidates could do well with Iowans: a social conservative who relied on face time to convey his message, and an establishment candidate who counted on money and superior organization.
“It just goes to show you that anybody can come to Iowa and compete,” Spiker said. In addition, the Iowa Republican Party has formed a 17-member caucus review committee to reexamine its processes to ensure there’s not a repeat of this year’s fiasco.
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky said both state Democrats and Republicans must be ready to answer the questions "Why Iowa? Why a caucus?" when they fight for their first-in-the-nation status. Dvorsky added that in the era of the super PAC, there has to be a place where presidential candidates without access to vast amounts of money can do well with some good old-fashioned retail.
Iowa Republicans will have "a heavier burden of proof now than they did before" when they make their case to the national party to stay first in line, Dvorsky said. “But that kind of conversation and back and forth—that happens every four years.”
It’s a good thing for Iowans that the pull of tradition is strong. Josh Putnam, a political science professor at Davidson College who runs FrontloadingHQ.com, a blog about the nomination process, said he doesn’t see the pecking order being disturbed anytime soon.
“For all of its warts, you more or less as a national party know that the system does what it’s supposed to do, which is to pick a nominee,” he said. “Neither party wants to rock that boat.”