DES MOINES — It’s beginning to look a lot like 2016 in Iowa.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is barnstorming the state this weekend in the same Ram 1500 pickup owned by GOP activist Chuck Laudner — the Chuck Truck — that he used to visit all 99 counties two years ago. The 2012 Iowa Caucus victor after a recount, Santorum began his three-day visit at a Council Bluffs fundraiser before traveling to speak at another event in the northwest part of the state. On Friday he’ll spend at least three hours at the state fair in Des Moines, before addressing a conservative confab in Ames on Saturday.
It wasn’t until 2006 that then-Sen. Barack Obama visited Iowa for the first time as his presidential preparations began in earnest. That was 26 months after the 2004 election. This time, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio visited only two weeks after Mitt Romney lost.
“It seems like it starts earlier and earlier,” says Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the five-term governor who is running for the sixth time next year. “We appreciate the money. We appreciate the attention.”
In Iowa, presidential elections are an industry — flooding the coffers of local television and radio stations, enriching a host of consultants and activists, and sometimes even state lawmakers. The ever-lengthening presidential cycles have funded something of an economic boom, according to operatives of both parties.
The roster of candidates who have already visited is long. This weekend, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Santorum will address a gathering of Iowa evangelicals. It will be Cruz’s second of three planned visits to the Hawkeye State this year. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul addressed a gathering of conservative pastors last month. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attended a Branstad fundraiser last weekend and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who spent seven years in the state as a child, attended two fundraisers in West Des Moines in May. Former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan will return to the state this November for Branstad’s annual birthday fundraiser — the same event Rubio appeared at last year.
“This is the nice thing about being from Iowa, you can get Marco Rubio, you can get Paul Ryan, you can get Governor Walker, you can get Rick Perry, you can get whomever you want,” Branstad told TIME.
The visits only reaffirm Iowa’s position as the home of the first-in-the-nation nominating contest, in the face of efforts by both parties to strip that role from the state. Republicans, especially, have discussed the idea, in the wake of last year’s confused outcome — Santorum was declared the victor days after the vote – and Ron Paul supporters having taken control of the party and its convention delegates at the state convention after last year’s caucuses.
“The fact that they come means we’ll stay first,” said one longtime Iowa Republican.
A July poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found a competitive race for Republicans in the state, with Paul at 18 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 16 percent, 14 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 11 percent for Rubio, and 10 percent for Cruz. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton would capture as much as 71 percent of the votes of caucus-goers, according to the poll.
Christie, who is up for reelection this fall, has thus far stayed out of Iowa, as has Bush since the November election. But the son and brother of former presidents delivered a speech in October to the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce in Sioux City, Iowa, sparking the headline “The Caucus 2016 race is on?” in the Des Moines Register four months before the 2012 general election.
Branstad, who predicted Republican governors would perform especially strongly in two-and-a-half-years, offered advice for would-be candidates. “Come early and often — and go to every county.”
Across the aisle, things are moving much more slowly. Clinton’s potential candidacy is casting a long shadow on the Democratic race. She hasn’t visited, and neither have Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. New Jersey Senate candidate and Newark Mayor Cory Booker backed out of an August paid speech at the University of Iowa last month to continue his campaign.
“The party out of power is always more interested in finding their next Presidential candidate than the party that occupies the White House,” said Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan. “Democrats are focused on governing right now.”
But that is showing signs of changing. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar will be in Clear Lake, Iowa next week for the North Iowa Wing Ding — an annual Democratic Party event.
“And we are expecting a few more folks to visit in the coming months,” Brennan said. “I expect that by this time next year we will have seen several visits by Democrats to Iowa.”