Happy new year, ladies and gentlemen. It’s finally 2012, and among other things we have an election to look forward to. Several of them, in fact, as the Republican Party decides on who to nominate as their candidate to face off against President Obama this fall. In fact, that process began yesterday, as I’m sure many of you know by now. The Iowa Caucuses are one of the more interesting parts of the nominating process in my opinion, both because they happen so close to the beginning of the new year and because of how different they are from just about every other contest in American democracy. While the normal procedure used on election day in November as well as in the majority of the primaries is your typical “spend five minutes in the voting booth” affair, the Iowa Caucuses are a whole different animal. In short, folks who attend the Caucuses go and listen to speeches by representatives from each campaign before casting their votes.
Does Iowa Matter?
Virtually everyone in the media and online was asking this question leading up to the caucuses, and there is no definitive answer. On the face of it, it’s not all that important because the caucuses don’t even determine who gets the state’s convention delegates; all it does is give the nation an idea of who has momentum in the race for the nomination and whose campaign can resonate with voters enough to finish in the top 3 (at least for this cycle, sometimes all that matters is who comes out on top).
Therefore, most of Iowa’s significance in the larger picture is the illusion of momentum it can give a campaign. Momentum in campaigns, particularly this early in the campaign and unlike in physics, is largely a psychological effect. But why Iowa? Much fuss has been made of its outsized influence on the nominating contest, seeing as it is demographically more homogenous than the country as a whole.
One quick aside: in political science, support of a candidate is thought of on the most basic level in terms of something called the Median-Voter Theorem. Think of all registered voters as being lined up on the political spectrum of liberal to conservative. In the general election (the one in November), the candidate who can win over the median voter, that is, the person who is ideologically right in the middle of the spectrum, will be the one that wins the election. In practice, this is the reason independents play a huge role in our elections.
However, in the primaries (and caucuses) the story is different. Rather than having to appeal to the overall median voter, a candidate must appeal to enough of his or her party’s base to secure the nomination. This is where Iowa is important; a figure quoted by various articles in the past few weeks showed that Iowa has a large number of evangelical Christians, a key demographic for the GOP. The Iowa Caucuses, then, are largely a test of how well a campaign can appeal to social conservatives, and a good measure of the candidate’s appeal to a large part of the Republican base. Enough political theory for now, though…
- Old-fashioned campaigning. A few weeks ago Rick Santorum was largely an afterthought in the race. However, he managed to overcome the huge funding advantage Mitt Romney had in Iowa by getting out there and shaking hands, kissing babies, and doing all the things that were once considered the hallmarks of running a campaign. Despite having a very significant disadvantage in fundraising, Santorum managed to very nearly win the Iowa Caucus, only losing to Mr. Romney by 8 votes. Not 8%, mind you, eight votes. This is purportedly the closest result in the history of the Iowa Caucus, and impressive given all that we traditionally assume about fundraising being the key to victory.
- Ron Paul. He managed to get a close third behind Romney and Santorum, and remaining relevant as a result. Further, by not winning, the Internet didn’t explode with posts from Paul’s sometimes-obnoxious fan base. A win-win for everyone!
- Rick Perry. Despite a poor performance in Iowa, he’s decided to stay in the race. Of course, as a Texan I would like that he’d at least spend a bit more time focusing on our state, but you have to give him credit for persistence.
- Michele Bachmann. She won the Ames Straw Poll back in August, and didn’t stop sliding since. Today, she decided to drop out of the race after the fact that she didn’t even win a single county in last night’s Iowa Caucus. She was the only woman in the race, and an early conservative star. Bachmann’s exit makes the race just a bit more ideologically sane, but the decision to drop out was a smart one. Momentum, folks; she clearly didn’t have any.
- The people of Iowa. This year’s Iowa Caucuses were also known for a heavy amount of negative campaign ads. I can’t say I’m at all surprised by this, as negative campaign ads are unfortunately the hallmark of a modern campaign. That said, the prevalence of negative ads are nonetheless a striking contrast to the community-centered focus of the Iowa Caucuses. The caucuses are very much ultimately a community-building event, where neighbors try to convince each other to vote for his or her favored candidate, and the amount of negative advertising can only be harmful to the spirit of the event, if not the substance of it.
- Mitt Romney. He won the Iowa Caucuses, and a win is a win, but aside from that fact I’d almost put him in the losers category. He outspent just about everybody and still barely matched his performance from four years ago. Further, he didn’t win all that convincingly in Iowa, so you have to wonder just how much momentum he actually has. Fortunately, New Hampshire should be a relatively easy primary for the Massachusetts Republican; it’s basically his home turf and there is something to be said for a home-field advantage in politics. We’ll be watching next week’s New Hampshire Primary to find out if he can do better, or if Santorum can keep up his momentum. Who knows, Ron Paul might even do better in this libertarian-leaning state.
The The Iowa Caucuses: The Long Road of 2012 Begins by The New Age of Politics, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.