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When Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad declared that Iowa was a "full-spectrum state" open to all GOP presidential hopefuls, Brian Duffy put him at the controls of the right-wing aircraft.

Have the Iowa GOP caucuses been reduced to irrelevancy?

COMMENTARY | June 13, 2011

Romney’s scaling back leaves the Iowa Republican party, controlled by the religious right, flailing and hard up for funds, and with an even dimmer outlook for future campaigns. For front-runners there is the ‘why bother’ element.

 By Herb Strentz

DES MOINES—Perhaps Mitt Romney did not exactly call the bluff of Iowa caucus advocates when he announced
he would scale back his Iowa efforts to get the GOP nomination for President — after all, the advocates boast that the road to a party’s nomination has to go through Iowa, and he hasn’t canceled out altogether. But Romney’s decision at least testifies to the weaknesses of the caucus process, almost to the point the caucuses could become mere diversions, even irrelevant, in the selection of the Republican presidential ticket for 2012.

And after 2012, the outlook for the GOP caucus gets even worse.

Here’s why:

• Front-runners and other strong candidates for a party’s nomination have more to lose and less to gain in the Iowa caucuses. Many of them are likely to avoid the state.

• The caucuses, particularly on the Republican side, have given way to greed. The Iowa GOP’s money-raising for in-state campaigns may outweigh its concerns for selecting the best candidate for the national ticket.

• The religious right in its control of the Iowa GOP has expanded its scope — from driving moderates out of the Iowa party to scorning national candidates who do not endorse the Iowa party’s right-wing agenda.

As for the front-runners, the Iowa caucuses deal in expectations. A dark horse candidate who finishes third, doing better than the pundits had predicted, figuratively wins the caucus, even to the point of beating the candidate who was expected to finish first and did. In the months leading up to the 2008 Democratic caucus, an aide to Hillary Clinton argued that the risks in Iowa outweighed the rewards, and her third place finish confirmed that. Barack Obama, however, got an enormous boost from his win; even second place might have served his candidacy well.

The history of the caucuses, from the emergence of Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1976 to Obama in 2008, is encouraging to dark horses and worrisome to front-runners.

The caucuses do weed out the “lost causes” among the dark horses, but that’s of small consolation to the leading candidate who manages to finish “only” first.  The question “Why bother?” has to occur to a front-runner’s campaign, as it apparently did to Romney’s.

Caucus advocates say Iowa is a testing ground for a candidate’s organizational ability — to see how he or she fares in generating enthusiasm in face-to-face meetings with Iowans, in raising money to support a campaign and in turning out supporters on caucus night.  

Taken to an extreme, the process results in the Iowa Straw Poll, the summer event preceding the winter Iowa caucuses. The GOP Straw Poll is often billed as measuring stick for a candidate’s organizational ability and popularity among Iowa voters. In practice, the Poll is a big-time fund raiser for Iowa Republicans — so much so that Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, in a column in the Des Moines Register, said the Iowa GOP has let the  “straw poll get out of hand due to greed.”

That characterization is apt when one considers that in 2007 candidate Romney gave the Iowa GOP more than a million bucks in Straw-Poll related expenses for generating votes, renting space at the Poll grounds on the Iowa State University campus, chartering buses for supporters, etc. He won the 2007 Poll. Why on earth would Romney want to make the same effort this year when he could not do better than in 2007 and could use the funds in 2012 in wiser fashion in, say, New Hampshire or other primary states?

Getting an informed campaign donor to kick in money for Iowa would be a tough sell, one would think, particularly when the religious right in Iowa would be stacked against Romney or at least more enamored with the likes of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann or other fringe candidates.

The Iowa religious right has been on an institutional high since November when their votes help oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of a 7-0 2009 decision that found unconstitutional a state law banning same-sex marriages.

The group and its primary spokesman, Robert Vander Plaats, see themselves as wielding the same influence in the Iowa caucuses. To that end, just about all major Iowa appearances by those expressing interest in the GOP nomination for president have been at forums sponsored by the religious right. Such forums are a far cry for the folksy, face-to-face meetings between candidates and voters in living rooms and kitchens that have been a hallmark of caucuses past.

Vander Plaats’s orientation is that a doctrinaire candidate is what is wanted and needed — not any of these moderates who see value in considering the views of others, and the credibility of the GOP caucuses suffers as a result.

Collateral damage from all these troubling outlooks for the Iowa caucuses may include harm to Republican campaigns in the 2012 state-office elections.  When Donald Trump and Mitt Romney were both in the mix for Straw Poll contributions to the Iowa GOP, the outlook for 2012 political advertising funds was great for Republicans.  Now one wonders if the revenue from the 2011 Straw Poll will much exceed what Romney spent by himself in 2007.

Unclear at this stage is how the problems with the GOP caucuses will affect those of the Democratic Party. With the incumbent President being a Democrat with no primary opponents, those caucuses automatically will be of little interest in 2012. Perhaps continuing to pair the caucuses will help the GOP in years ahead; Romney’s action might herald the start of a reformation in Iowa that will bring the state GOP back to its senses. Perhaps.

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