In sub-zero temperatures, Iowa Republicans will gather on January 3rd to choose their candidate for president. With only days to go, the field remains wide-open – a reflection of the lack of enthusiasm felt by the GOP base toward this year’s candidates.
Because Iowa is the first state in the nation to enter a months-long nomination process, hard-core party activists here tend to wield a disproportionate amount of influence, despite comprising a tiny percentage of the American electorate. The seven GOP candidates currently in the race have spent time and money trying to court Iowan votes and to win the endorsements of local power players; they are now traveling across the state in a last-minute effort to clinch the support of undecided caucus-goers.
All things considered, former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are seen as the most likely winners, but neither wholly fulfills the expectations of conservative Iowans. Their showings in the polls have been unsteady and often unconvincing. Instead, the outcome of this race might very well depend on the performance of second-tier candidates. Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry, in particular, have the ability to appeal to Iowa’s two strongest conservative constituencies: small government libertarians (a recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that more than three quarters of Iowa caucus-goers are supportive of the Tea Party) and evangelical Christians.
Paul, in particular, looks increasingly close to causing an upset and taking Iowa, while Perry, though unlikely to win, could still throw the plans of front-runners Gingrich and Romney off balance.
According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, Romney is in the lead in Iowa, with 23% of caucus-goers saying they support him. Not far behind are Gingrich at 20% and Paul at 18%. The last five Rasmussen polls have each showed a different front-runner, an indication of how unsettled things continue to be in Iowa. Before choosing to step out of the race, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain had been leading the polls, succeeded more recently by Gingrich. But for Nate Silver of the New York Times, Gingrich’s momentum “has stopped – and has probably reversed itself.” In Silver’s forecast model, Gingrich now has a 38% chance of winning in Iowa and is continuing to drop.
In Iowa, Gingrich faces the same challenges as Romney. The GOP base here doubts their conservative credentials. Both candidates are known for having taken more moderate positions in the past, on healthcare reform, gay rights, and abortion. Additionally, their personal backgrounds (Romney a Mormon from liberal Massachusetts and Gingrich a converted Catholic and known adulterer, on his third wife) are far from ideal for the state’s Christian right.
In fact, after enthusiastically embracing former Arkansas Governor and Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee in 2008, Iowa’s evangelical Christians have yet to endorse a candidate for 2012.
Given the weakness of the two favorites, analysts believe there is still space for a wild card to upend things, and everybody is betting on Ron Paul. In the most recent Public Policy Polling, he even comes first, with 23% of support, ahead of Romney (20%) and Gingrich (14%). With a more reliable grassroots organization than Gingrich and with more ardent support than Romney’s, Paul could surprise everyone and eke out a victory.
Even if Paul fails to win Iowa, he could still heavily influence the outcome of the vote. During recent debates and public appearances he has gone after Gingrich, in a series of attacks that could unwittingly aid his chief rival Romney.
Rick Perry could end up playing a similar role. With a very controversial TV ad that focused on religious values and criticized the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (which now allows gays to serve openly in the military), Perry launched a full-fledged campaign for the votes of Iowa’s evangelicals. He is now on a ten-day bus tour across the state, and his bus is painted in the colors of the American flag and bears the slogan: “Faith, Jobs, and Freedom”. “Faith” is displayed a prominent first. He could erode Gingrich’s support among the religious right and unintentionally deliver Iowa to Romney.
In the face of general discontent over the plethora of candidates on display, the key to the Iowa primary will be whether state Republicans decide to go for the person who best represents their conservative values (which could mean Perry, but also Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum, although these two are lagging far behind) or, given the lack of a clear favorite, the person they deem better suited for a general elections fight against President Barack Obama.
In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, only Gingrich and Romney were given passable grades in terms of electability; 31% and 29% of Iowa caucus-goers said that these two candidates had, respectively, the best chance of defeating Obama. All the other contenders came a distant second. But asked to pick the candidate that best represented their values, respondents chose Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul.
With the Iowa holiday season kicking into full gear, it is still anybody’s guess about which candidate can win the hearts and minds of this state’s conservative voters.