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.
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