Every four years or so, the center of the political universe shifts from Washington, D.C. to Iowa, where voters weigh in on the presidential candidates before voters in any other state. Iowa is supposed to be a bellwether, an early test of which candidates have real staying power, and a victory can propel an underdog candidate into the first tier of presidential contenders. Just ask Barack Obama, who got a massive momentum boost from his 2008 caucus victory.
Iowa is seen as important because most of the candidates engage in what's called "retail politics" there - the handshake-and-backslap campaigning that can be otherwise hard to come by in national contests. The state is small enough that candidates can plausibly cover nearly all of it, and, since it comes first, they have plenty of time to meet the voters. A victory for a second-tier candidate thus garners them a serious second look from the media and prospective donors; a poor showing from a high-profile contender can effectively sink a campaign.
But a column by the former head of the New Hampshire Republican party, Fergus Cullen, is now focusing skepticism about whether Iowa should really play such an outsize role. Cullen is not exactly an impartial source: His state comes second in the nominating contest. But his point reflects a view held by many in the political world, including some of the candidates.
And that point is this: Iowa simply isn't a good representative of the overall Republican electorate, and thus the results there really don't mean a thing.
"Evangelical Christians and social conservatives are key components of the diverse Republican coalition, but in Iowa, they are the dominant faction," Cullen writes. He goes on to note that Mike Huckabee's victory over Mitt Romney there in 2008 is believed to have been driven in part by discomfort among such voters about Romney's Mormon faith. The makeup of the electorate, he writes, "begs the question for secular candidates who emphasize fiscal issues: If you're not likely to win what amounts to an evangelical primary, why compete?"
2008 exit polling found that 60 percent of the Iowa Republican electorate in 2008 was "born-again Christian," compared to just 23 percent in New Hampshire. White evangelicals make up about one-third of the Republican electorate nationwide.
The apparent outsize influence of born-again or evangelical voters in Iowa has prompted candidates to start effectively opting out of competing in the state, starting with John McCain in 2000. This year, Romney looks poised to essentially skip the state and focus on New Hampshire and states that come further along in the process. Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman may opt out as well.
On Monday, Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, pushed back at the notion that his state doesn't reflect the national Republican electorate, calling Iowa a "full spectrum state." He said his primary victory last year over the social conservative Bob Vander Plaats showed Iowans are not solely focused on social issues.
In his column, Cullen cited a poll finding that nearly half of Iowa Republicans don't believe President Obama was born in the United States to argue that "[i]t's hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wears tinfoil hats." (CBS News polling hasthat nearly half of Republicans nationwide have the same misconception.) Cullen suggested that Iowa had effectively marginalized itself and argued the state's reputation as a bellwether is undeserved, since only two winners of contested Iowa Republican caucuses have won the GOP nomination since 1980.
The decision by Huckabee to skip the 2012 race has opened the door to other potential candidates to make a play for the social-conservative vote in Iowa, and the media and donor boost that would come with a strong showing in the caucuses. Newt Gingrich is currently on a 17-stop tour in the state, and Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum are likely to bet big on Iowa to give a boost to their likely candidacies.
It's possible that a candidate who isn't a social conservative darling could slip through, however, particularly if social conservatives don't coalesce around a candidate. While that might disappoint the dominant faction in the Iowa GOP electorate, it would probably be good news for the state from an economic perspective. That's because it would cut against the growing perception that Iowa doesn't matter all that much - and encourage candidates and reporters to keep coming back every four years to spend money in the Hawkeye State.