Five Unanswered Questions About the Iowa Caucus

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry speaks to Republicans at a Greene County party fundraiser on Sept. 15, 2011, at the county fairgrounds in Jefferson, Iowa.

Des Moines, Iowa

Iowans are restless. Six weeks after the political world converged on Iowa for the Ames straw poll, the pace of the race toward the first-in-the-nation caucus has slackened. It’s not that candidates aren’t barnstorming the Hawkeye State; Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have all visited in the last week. But the field is fluid–Perry upended the pecking order once, and Sarah Palin still lurks offstage–and so is the date, which is slated for Feb. 6 but likely to move to sometime in January. Despite Perry’s rise, the race remains up for grabs. Here are five questions that loom as a sluggish summer gives way to what should be a fascinating fall:

Will Romney go all in?

In 2008 the former Massachusetts governor spent many months and $10 million building a robust Iowa team. His sons tooled around the state in a Winnebago dubbed the “Mittmobile,” and the candidate opened a hefty lead in the polls. But Romney earned a reputation for waffling and Mike Huckabee was the one who caught fire, winning the caucus by nine points after finishing second to Romney at Ames.

This time around, Romney has been judicious about committing resources to the Hawkeye State. He has visited Iowa only a handful of times, though his campaign says he’ll be there more over the coming weeks. Romney has just two paid Iowa staff and no discrete headquarters. In a state where 60% of caucus-goers described themselves as evangelical Christians in 2008, there is a line of thought that the 30,000 votes Romney notched last time is his ceiling, and that it makes little sense to squander cash and raise expectations by funneling resources into a contest where an establishment Mormon will struggle to strike the right chords with the electorate.

And yet, several Iowa insiders say that it would be a mistake for Romney not to fight fiercely here. His opponents are vying for the same batch of social conservatives, and it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which they cannibalize each other’s votes. The money Romney lavished on Iowa four years ago has bought him residual good will and a network of committed volunteers. If Romney can mount a charge – a tactic his campaign publicly dismisses, but which others insist they are mulling – and eke out a surprise victory, he would be poised to go back-to-back in New Hampshire and suck the drama from the race before it starts.

“What he’s got to do is shove in his stack in Iowa without the media knowing it,” says David Yepsen, the longtime dean of the Iowa press corps, now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “Romney doesn’t want to look like he’s putting a whole lot of chips in Iowa, but he’d be nuts not to try to score that knockout blow.” Another unaffiliated Iowa insider says Romney stands to benefit from the likelihood of higher turnout driven by an uncontested Democratic caucus as well as frustration with Barack Obama and the swooning economy: “It makes no sense for him not to play.”

How strong is Perry?

The Texas governor has swaggered into the race, blunting Bachmann’s momentum and snatching the front-runner’s mantle. He snagged several of Tim Pawlenty’s former staffers and built a network of a half-dozen field operatives, on his way to what many expect to be the biggest operation in the state. RealClearPolitics’ polling average for Iowa showed the Texas governor up six points on Bachmann and Romney at the end of August.

That doesn’t mean everyone is sold. “If Rick Perry is successful in making this a largely issueless campaign – other than he’s the white male governor from a big state that you usually vote for, and he can throw a few Jesus bombs – then I think he will win,” says conservative radio-show host Steve Deace. As Iowa conservatives have gotten a closer look at Perry’s record, they’ve spotted blemishes beneath the prayer rallies and the presidential mien. His more moderate immigration policy, his apparent one-time support for the 2008 bank bailout and the HPV inoculation he mandated for young girls clash with the conservative rhetoric that paved the way for his red-carpet entrance into the race. Perry’s camp is reaching out to influential Iowans, including conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, to tamp down some of those concerns, but it’s far from clear that he’ll ride herd over the field.

What happened to Bachmann?

After a fast start, her campaign has fizzled. Her faulty attack on Perry’s HPV policy boomeranged, her support fell to 5% in a national poll this week, and her own former campaign manager warns that even if she can win Iowa, she’s ill-equipped for the gantlet that will follow. One local Republican says that her strategy seems scatter-shot: since winning Ames, her visits to the state have too often pinballed between stops in Waterloo and Des Moines, ignoring swaths of western Iowa where her red-meat message matches the mood of the electorate. Iowa is the fulcrum of Bachmann’s national primary strategy, and she is building up her statewide infrastructure. On Wednesday, she snapped up veteran operative Eric Woolson, who had been with Tim Pawlenty before he dropped out of the race.

So far, though, it’s a non-endorsement — that of Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King — that spotlights the hurdle she’s yet to clear. “Michele Bachmann is a good friend and a close friend and I have great respect for all of the skills that she brings to the table,” King told The Iowa Republican in late August.  “Still, this is about the President of the United States.  It’s not about friendship.” If Bachmann hasn’t convinced a close Congressional ally that she has what it takes to be President, how can she hope to convince establishment Iowans that she’s a credible candidate? Which brings us to the next question.

Will Iowans vote with their hearts or their heads?

Whether caucus-goers will prioritize a candidate’s values or viability will go a long way toward determining who gets a jolt from the caucus and who gets winnowed out. Even the staunchest champion of conservative values, analysts say, has to pass the presidential sniff test. “At the end of the day, electability trumps any specific issue,” says an Iowa Republican operative. Says Yepsen: “Even the most ardent social conservatives look for somebody who can win.”

This mindset is a strike against guys like Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, the latter of whom’s values perhaps align best with the typical Iowa caucus-goer, but who lacks the money and the megaphone to do more than play spoiler. It would boost candidates like Romney and Perry, whose profiles and deep pockets give them better shots at ousting Obama. (Indeed, electability is a large part of what Romney and Perry are hawking.) At the same time, the dismal economy has made Obama look vulnerable enough that more Republicans may begin to believe that anyone in the field has a chance to topple him. Iowans’ record of picking winners is checkered: just two of the past five Republicans to capture a contested caucus — Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 — have gone on to the general election, and only Bush won.

Has the traditional playbook changed?

The time-tested formula for winning the caucus has been to build a well-oiled political machine: win over key rainmakers and gatekeepers, install chairmen in all 99 counties, enlist an army of volunteers and precinct bosses, and have the candidate blanket the state shaking hands. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process, and — as Romney, Pawlenty and many of their predecessors have found — it comes with no guarantee of success. Yet Iowans are apt to dismiss candidates who don’t throw their all into contesting the caucus, and candidates — Jon Huntsman is an exception — generally comply, reasoning that if they’re a long-shot to win, they can’t afford to become an afterthought.

But some Republicans say the importance of building that traditional campaign apparatus may be abating. Four years ago, Huckabee rode a wave of enthusiasm and a ragtag band of fervent supporters to victory over competitors with far greater resources. “This thing isn’t simply decided by organization. It’s just not,” says Deace. “Organization helps, but it doesn’t overcome being a crappy candidate. You can hire all the hired guns you want – that’s what Pawlenty did, what Rick Perry is doing now, what Romney did four years ago– but if a candidate sucks, doesn’t matter how good your organization is.” The notion that winning the caucus requires a 99-county operation, says another longtime GOP operative, is a “legacy view.” Social media, cable news and the heightened metabolism of the national news cycle now give candidates a pulpit to reach voters they’re unable to physically see and touch. Even major candidates like Perry are planning to run a leaner operation than front-runners past.

The flip-side, of course, is that if a candidate gambles that repeat trips to far-flung counties are no longer obligatory, they risk sparking the ire of voters who still expect candidates to perform the traditional spadework. We’re spoiled. And we know we’re spoiled,” says an unaffiliated Iowa Republican. “But we expect them to be here a lot, and the winner will be.”