Iowa and Mitt Romney have, at best, a chilly relationship. The Hawkeye State nearly sank Romney’s 2008 campaign when it preferred the upstart Mike Huckabee despite the former Massachusetts governor’s multimillion-dollar barnstorming effort there. Like a spurned lover, Romney has kept his distance this time around, rarely visiting and publicly downplaying Iowa’s importance to his nomination.
But that frost may be about to melt. With the Iowa caucuses only three months away, the GOP front-runner is sending subtle signals that he no longer plans to ignore the state. His wife, Ann Romney, visited last week, and a strategist for his campaign, Russ Schriefer, said recently that Romney would compete there. And for good reason: Shifting Republican rivalries have given him a chance to steamroll expectations. Some in-state Republicans even say he could win the caucuses, a possibility that would turn the GOP race on its head.
Pleas for Romney to engage in Iowa aren’t new, but Romney has never had a greater opening than now. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose rural background and evangelical appeal was tailor-made for the Midwestern state, has plummeted in the polls after botching his first three debates. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who won the Iowa straw poll and was the early front-runner, has been wounded by a train of misstatements and staff departures. Romney also caught a break when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who could have displaced him as the front-runner, decided not to run this week. “It’s already October, and I think the campaigns that are here [in Iowa] aren’t really overly organized yet,” said Craig Robinson, who runs a popular conservative website. “So there’s a wide opportunity for a guy like Romney to emerge in Iowa as the front-runner.”
Perry and Bachmann, along with the surging Herman Cain, libertarian favorite Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, won’t wither away in Iowa. But in the absence of a clear front-runner, they will all have to scrap for the same group of Republicans—conservative, religious voters who constitute the majority of the state’s GOP base. Evangelicals accounted for 60 percent of the Iowa caucus vote in 2008, according to exit polls, compared with 44 percent nationally. But none of Romney’s rivals is well-positioned to win a commanding percentage of that vote, as Huckabee did in 2008. “Huckabee was the easy one to coalesce around last time,” said Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa-based social-conservative group the Family Leader. “This time, [Romney’s opponents] are all probably splitting up that Huckabee base of support, which makes it easier for Romney to walk out with victory.”
That means Romney might be able to triumph even if he captures only slightly more than the 25 percent of votes he won in 2008. Although he still faces challenges, he will face little competition for the more secular, Main Street Republicans that his campaign is calibrated to attract. The ranks of those less-ideological Republicans, who constituted 40 percent of caucus-goers in 2008, could also swell this time because there won’t be a competing Democratic contest. Romney’s path is far different than in 2008, says Doug Gross, who was Romney’s Iowa manager that year and is unaffiliated now. John McCain and Fred Thompson, who captured 27 percent of the vote between them in 2008, won’t be around this time to slice into Romney’s favorite demographic. “You have multiple social conservatives running, instead of multiple mainstream conservatives,” Gross says. “Last time, we had the opposite.”
The implications of Romney performing well in Iowa, let alone winning, would be profound. Exceeding his presently low expectations—say, finishing within striking distance of the winner—would inject a big dose of momentum into his campaign just as he heads to his electoral stronghold in New Hampshire, where a victory would make him the clear favorite in the remaining states. A win in Iowa would be even more dramatic: Capturing the first two states would almost certainly wipe out at least one major rival and could even seal the nomination. The race that pundits all expect to be a long war of attrition might turn out to be a short-lived romp. “If Romney comes out here and finishes ahead of Perry, he could put the race away early,” said Gross. “That’s a great opportunity because then you don’t have to slug it out for three to five months.”
Unquestionably, Romney still faces hardened opposition from staunch conservatives who don’t trust him and are angry about what they consider his moderate record. The same people who helped send him to defeat three years ago are intent on doing so again next year. Iowa-based talk-show host Steve Deace, citing Romney’s push for a universal health care law in Massachusetts that was a template for President Obama’s plan, went so far as to accuse him being the most liberal governor—Democrat or Republican—in the history of the Republic. “If there was a German measles outbreak, and all other candidates contracted it and couldn’t participate, then I think he can do better than 25 percent,” Deace said. “Beyond that, he can’t do better than he did last time.”
The difference, though, is that Romney could end up looking very good even if he doesn’t do much better than last time.
This article appears in the October 8, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.