James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Campaign 2012: Does Iowa Matter?

by James M. Lindsay
January 3, 2012

Governor Rick Perry points at the Iowa state flag during a campaign event in December, 2011 (John Gress/courtesy Reuters).

Governor Rick Perry points at the Iowa state flag during a campaign event in December, 2011 (John Gress/courtesy Reuters).

Last week I sat down with veteran reporter and CFR.org consulting editor Bernard Gwertzman to discuss the first nominating event in the Republican presidential campaign—the Iowa caucuses. Tonight, Republican voters across the state will have their chance to say who they want to represent the GOP come next fall. The caucuses generate a lot of press, but given that they do not actually allocate any convention delegatesthat comes later, making tonight’s vote advisory only—do the caucuses matter?

Bernie asked me that question, and here’s what I told him:

Much is going to depend upon what happens in the first event in Iowa, and whether or not Romney has a strong showing. If Romney wins, or is only narrowly beaten by Ron Paul, it’s likely he will be able to go on and do very well in New Hampshire and probably perform strongly in South Carolina. But if Romney doesn’t come in one or two in Iowa, or if one of the [more] conservative candidates—Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or Michele Bachmann—does unexpectedly well, that could set up the potential for a showdown between Romney and that conservative candidate in South Carolina come January 21.

All of the candidates are going all out in Iowa because they realize it stands to be a pivotal event, not because the winner of the Iowa caucuses is guaranteed the nomination. Anything but. Just ask Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, or George H.W. Bush in 1980, or Bob Dole in 1988. Clearly the candidates understand that there’s a winnowing process that goes on in Iowa, and that’s the way Newt Gingrich is approaching it. He had a big surge in December, which is good, but it’s always better to have a big surge in January. Gingrich’s numbers have trailed off, and the question for him is going to be, can he stop the slide in his support and edge out Romney?

Weather.com says it should be partly cloudy and about 35 degrees at caucus time. That’s a veritable heat wave in Iowa at this time of year, so the weather won’t hurt the turnout. And no, I won’t be tuning in to watch the cable news channels dissect the results. My eyes will be glued to the Sugar Bowl, where my alma mater will either give me something to smile about for eight months or break my heart. History doesn’t bode well on that score.

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