"On caucus night, it's our job as Iowans to tell the rest of America which of the presidential candidates has the message that the rest of America needs to listen to,” David Fischer, co-chairman of the Ron Paul campaign in Iowa, told a crowd of around 200 supporters at a town hall in Washington, Iowa. “We're going to wake America up with this message.”
In the final days before the Iowa caucus, that message on the campaign trail was not about finding the candidate most likely to defeat President Barack Obama. The emphasis was on empowerment and breaking open the process from the grips of the establishment on the east coast.
"The Republican establishment is what we're tired of out here,” said Ed De Neve, a farmer from Victor, Iowa, when asked what he thought of Mitt Romney. “Maybe we are a bunch of hicks, but at least we've got values. We are what makes this country work because we understand that income can come from productivity. You can pass paper around all you want, but it doesn't produce anything.”
For De Neve, an added black mark on Romney's record is the media's treatment of him as the presumed nominee. “The press more or less runs everything,” he groused. “And I was awful disappointed when we got John McCain, and that's who gave us John McCain.”
Like four years ago, dissatisfaction with the status quo – in Washington and in the media – is a throbbing pulse in the Iowa caucuses this winter. And as in 2008, caucus-goers are looking to make a statement. But local politics in Iowa and the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010 have changed the supply and demand of candidates who think they have a shot at success as the principled outsider.
"It's different than last time around, having it split,” said Connie Morrison, a conservative Christian voting who is supporting Michele Bachmann. "But I guess I still have to vote my conscience on it and not think of what is expedient."
An Organized - but Split - Base
The herky jerkiness of the national polls this year have shown that Republicans across the country are anxiously embracing, then casting aside candidates who look like the best hope to register their disapproval of both Obama and Washington generally.
In Iowa, this has been complicated by local organizing that since 2008 has activated two distinct threads of the base: Social conservative voters who feel their values are under attack, and fiscal hawks looking to upend what they see as a culture of government spending.
The 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court that allowed gay marriage in the state ignited a backlash among religious conservatives. Under the leadership of the Iowa group Family Leader, and fueled by outside money, voters ousted three of the seven ruling judges at the polls last year.
The issue was enough for retired farmer John Robey of Brooklyn, Iowa, to flip parties altogether. He turned out to the caucus for the first time in 2008 to support Hillary Clinton.
"I just went to her caucus and I was disappointed she didn't get to run,” he told me. But since then, he's changed his registration to Republican and and is considering Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry this year. “In the end, I guess, I could see different things, gays and everything, that it was time to change.”
At the same time, supporters of Ron Paul were working to build their ground game after his fifth place showing in the 2008 caucus. By the fall, in a year that saw losses for Republicans in both the state Senate and House of Representatives, local supporters organized under the group called Campaign for Liberty helped to send some unknown conservatives to the legislature.
"They elected some candidates that I never saw coming, and they were very instrumental, they're very organized,” said Christopher Rants, a former Republican Speaker of the House in Iowa. “I'm not surprised by his standing in the polls.”
In 2010, there were signs of cooperation between the social conservative and the Ron Paul wings of the Republican party – but with both constituencies having their own candidate, they are jockeying in these final days to see how voters will split.
No Clear Leader in Local Endorsements
These splits have been reflected in the very muddled endorsement heading into the caucuses. Both Republican leaders in the state Senate and House endorsed Newt Gingrich this week, even as he dropped in state polls.
The group Family Leader, a powerhouse turnout and organizing machine, declined to endorse any candidate, but its president did. Bob Vander Plaats personally endorsed Santorum, and the group followed up a few days later with a clarifying statement that every board member also supported Santorum, but they withheld a formal endorsement because organization supporters were backing other candidates.
Ron Paul has the backing of five members of the Iowa Republican Central Committee - “four more than an any other candidate,” the campaign touts.
The Des Moines Register editorialized in favor of Mitt Romney, who also got the endorsement for a second time from former Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants.
Meanwhile, Iowa's popular Republican governor Terry Branstad and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley are staying out of it.
The Foreign Policy Wildcard
It could come down to how Iowa Republicans respond to Ron Paul's foreign policy positions.
At a town hall in Washington, Iowa, this week, Paul spent the first ten minutes of his thirty minutes laying out the rationale for his positions, unique in the Republican field, to end foreign aid, drastically reduce American overseas outposts, and bring troops home from Afghanistan. It drew enthusiastic applause.
Politically, it should be easier for us to get a coalition,” an energized Paul told the crowd. “We have Republicans. We have Democrats. We have independents, and we have people who've been turned off from government. Why can't we get people to think about the proper role of government. It's to take care of our people first, it's not to be the policeman of the world.”
Molly Pence, a self-described Tea Party Republican from Wellman, Iowa, was one of the 200 or so supporters cheering.
I think that we have lost way too many lives and have accomplished not nearly enough to validate that number. And I don't like to see us doing things where it's not appreciated,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like we should have our troops defending our troops from within our country.”
But it was Paul's forcefulness about scaling back foreign policy that turned away farmer Ed De Neve.
I was going to support Ron Paul on his economic issues,” he said, but that changed after he watched Paul argue against sanctions in Iran in the debate in Sioux City. “I heard his foreign policy, he's sixty years too late. We've got to deal with the foreign policy we have now. We can't act as though we don't have a problem and think it's going to go away.”
And even though he supports Romney, former Iowa House Speaker Rants said he's not surprised that Paul's positions haven't been an automatic dealbreaker in Iowa.
Republicans are going to have to realize that we have a certain segment in our party that are tired of the wars and tired of the fighting and I think that's real and that may not fit with the intellectual elite out of Washington, DC, but it's a reality out there,” he said. “And it may be in part because in this state we've got a higher per capita population that serves in the National Guard and the Reserves than any other state in the nation, so in every neighborhood there's someone who's gone off to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
What Could Make the Difference
Turnout in the 2008 Democratic and Republican caucuses exploded beyond expectations, ticking at at 12 percent, compared to the average turnout of six percent. That year, 120,000 Republicans turned out – about twenty percent of those registered.
As the rules go, voters can register as a Republican at the door, which could opens up the opportunity to participate to the 37 percent of Iowans who are independents.
But Romney supporter Christopher Rants is not holding out hope that political pragmaticism will reign on caucus night.
There are some Iowa Republicans, I would say a lot of Iowa Republicans, that would rather be right than win,” he said.
But he said that shouldn't be used as a rationale to deem the caucuses irrelevant.
All you people on the coasts always want to dismiss the Iowa caucuses,” he said. A Ron Paul win would prove that retail politicking still matters, he said, but added, “I do worry that it will make some folks say we need to discount Iowa in the future because Mike Huckabee didn't go anywhere and Ron Paul's not going anywhere. That is a problem.”
Republican voter Connie Morrison, the Bachmann supporter puts it another way. “I'm voting my conscience,” she said. “I'm not thinking of sending a message.”
But the real question heading into the holidays is which candidate convinces voters like Ed De Neve that he or she the best way to register their complaints with the system.
I've always gone to the caucuses. I guess we don't get too big a caucus turnout in these small towns, so it's more or less the same people,” he said, still undecided. “I don't agree with anybody on everything, but we've got to have somebody that takes on this economy and get some jobs going somewhere.”