In Iowa, a Year of Glad-Handing and Far Right-Leaning

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses are a neat exercise in grassroots political participation.  Oh sure, they require extra effort because they are a face-to-face event and if you can’t make it to your precinct (one of 1,774), you’re out of luck. Any Republican who wants to caucus in 2012 can find a way to get there, but it’s usually only the hard core die-hards want to spend a cold and snowy February 6 night this way.

We’re a year out now, and candidates are starting to trickle in. A presidential debate with the Iowa GOP and Fox News will open the season on August 11, followed two days later by the GOP Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa. Although largely a beauty contest with no meaning for the 2012 presidential selection, the straw poll is an important fundraiser for the party and a “county fair” (the caucuses are the State Fair), where the media and voters get to look at, pinch, stroke, and evaluate the “beef” that wants to lead the party in November.

Any candidate who wants to play in the caucuses must participate and show their appeal and organization skills there. And I hear that participation in the Straw Poll may be required in order to be part of the nationally televised debate.

But before it all starts, here are some key questions that will help us follow the  herd of candidates:

Will the Tea Party get traction in Iowa?  The Tea Party (Movement) already has huge traction in Iowa. Many of the key GOP political figures in the state, as well as some of the action groups that will fund and spin candidates for president (Right-to-Life groups, anti-gay marriage groups, smaller government “taxpayer” groups, etc.) are firmly interconnected with what we are loosely calling the Tea Party phenomenon. Since it’s not a party per se, it’s hard to track, but I have been listening since before the midterm elections, and there is a significant “Tea Party-ness” in the position that legislators and others are taking.

Where do Iowa Republicans fall on the GOP spectrum?  Generally Iowa is on the conservative edge of the GOP. Surprise, Surprise! But Iowa has been trending that direction for many years. I had dinner with Mary Louise Smith, the notable Iowa Republican who was the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee shortly before her passing away in 1997. She had been all but voted out of her Republican caucus and was crushed by the more conservative fork in the road the party was taking.

How big an influence have centrist Republicans been in the caucus? I also have a long list of moderate Republicans whom I have know for the better part of 40 years (that’s how long I have been teaching and doing research at Iowa State university.) In my conversations with them and in researching their activities it is crystal clear that moderates have been all but purged from the party. I was made aware of a Republican aid to a GOP politician who is pro life and generally conservative but believes that marriage should be decided by people not politicians. When the GOP found out about her position she was summarily fired from her job. There are litmus tests and marriage, abortion, small government, deportation of illegal aliens in the US, and guns are clearly the foundations of the Iowa GOP in 2011.

How will candidates execute the ground lessons from Obama 2008? Barack Obama came in first in the Iowa caucuses for two reasons. The field of Democratic wannabes was large and Ted Kennedy, a revered political figure among many liberal Democrats in Iowa, backed Obama. If Ronald Reagan were alive and campaigned for a Republican presidential contender in 2012 that person would win the caucuses hands down. There is no Ronald Reagan. If Glenn Beck endorsed someone, it might help. If Sarah Palin endorsed someone, it would be worthless because she is what the buzz is about. She has no “coattails.” The only lesson a Republican can learn is that you need to do retail campaigning, shake lots of hands, have a really powerful and exciting internet and social media presence and not just come in first, second, or third in Iowa but also have a national campaign in which you plan to fight to the finish in all 50 stares, Puerto Rico and Guam! I predict that whoever wins the GOP nomination for 2012 will do exactly that.

Steffen “Dr Politics” Schmidt, is University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University, a Des Moines Register blogger, and Chief Political and International Correspondent for He has studied, written and commented on the Iowa caucuses since 1970 and is a frequent commentator on television including CNN en Español. He is the lead author of the most widely used textbook American Government and Politics Today (Cengage Publishing) now in its 17th 2011-2012 edition.