When Mitt Romney took the stage at the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Presidential Forum last Friday in Des Moines, he began by saying, “It’s good to be home.” If Iowa is Romney’s “home,” then his somewhat arrogant statement should have been greeted by a “where the hell have you been,” instead of laughter.
Calling Iowa “home” is one way to defuse the fact that, since finishing second in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Romney has only been to Iowa four times when you include Friday’s visit. If he is “glad to be home,” then why has Romney gone out of his way to downplay Iowa and our First-in-the-Nation caucuses?
In his fire alarm shortened remarks, Romney tried to convince the audience that he plans to campaign in Iowa. Yet, when questioned about why he has rarely traveled to Iowa since 2008 and why he is announcing his candidacy in New Hampshire instead of Iowa, it became clear that Iowans’ assumptions that Romney is basically writing off Iowa were confirmed.
Romney’s avoidance of Iowa is largely due to his disappointing finish in the 2008 Iowa caucuses where he finished second behind Mike Huckabee. Despite a talented team of Iowa advisors and operatives, Romney was never able to endear himself to Iowa caucus goers like Huckabee was able to do. Even though he out-spent Huckabee by a substantial margin, when the votes were cast, Romney lost by nine points.
Romney’s actions have made it very clear that doing well in Iowa is no longer a priority for his campaign. Four years ago, his Iowa campaign was managed by Gentry Collins, who was just coming off of a stint as the Executive Director of the Republican Governors Association. This year, his campaign manager is a former field staffer. While competent, his new Iowa campaign manager doesn’t hold a candle to the experience Collins brought to the 2008 campaign.
Instead of focusing on Iowa, Romney has adopted a New Hampshire-centered strategy this time around. On its face, it makes sense. Romney is well known in New Hampshire. He owns a home on Lake Winnipesaukee, and the Boston media market covers part of the state. Additionally, John McCain proved in 2008 that you could essentially skip Iowa and still win the Republican nomination.
However, Romney’s unconventional path to capture the Republican nomination has never been done before. He’s not just downplaying Iowa, he’s also avoiding South Carolina, which is a strategy that is far different than what John McCain implemented in 2000 and 2008. In bypassing two of the first three contests, Romney’s approach looks more like the path Rudy Giuliani took to an embarrassing finish in 2008 than what propelled John McCain to the nomination.
Romney’s strategy requires a victory in New Hampshire to work. In many ways, the traditional media and political pundits have bought into this strategy because they believe Romney will win Hew Hampshire, but a victory there is far from guaranteed. In the 2008 New Hampshire primary, Romney finished five points behind John McCain. While his margin of defeat was less in New Hampshire than it was in Iowa, Romney only won two counties in New Hampshire, one by a mere 71 votes, and the other by just 622 votes. The notion that Romney is somehow invincible in New Hampshire is a myth.
While Romney will not have to contend with John McCain in 2012, his New Hampshire strategy will not be as easy as McCain’s was four years ago. First and foremost, John McCain won New Hampshire in 2000. He had a pre-existing base of support in the Granite State when poor fundraising numbers forced him to retreat to New Hampshire in an effort to salvage his campaign. Secondly, Romney will not be the only candidate trying to implement a New Hampshire or bust strategy.
Besides your typical candidate visits to the New Hampshire, John McCain had the state all to himself during the early stages of the 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns. In 2012, Jon Huntsman is also taking the same route to the nomination that Romney is attempting. Rumors are also swirling that Rudy Giuliani may get into the race soon. Complicating matters even more for candidates like Romney who are banking on a New Hampshire victory is that any late entrant to the race will likely compete for votes in New Hampshire.
Most of the rumored late entrants could wreak havoc with Romney’s plans. Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and even Chris Christie would all fracture the block of votes Romney is counting on in a state like New Hampshire. Even worse, a candidate like Texas Governor Rick Perry would appeal to all segments of the Republican Party, which means that he could compete with Romney in New Hampshire and also in more conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina.
By neglecting Iowa for almost four years now, the only Iowa success Romney can point to is that he has lowered his expectations in the state. However, he did so at great expense. Romney received one out of every four votes in Iowa during the 2008 caucuses.
That level of support is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering that Republican turnout set a turnout record. Furthermore, Bob Dole won the 1996 caucuses with 26 percent of the vote and George H. W. Bush won the 1980 caucuses with 32 percent of the vote. Romney’s 25 percent of the caucus vote in 2008 could be enough to win the contest against what many believe is a weak Republican field.
Having ignored Iowa, Romney’s expectations in the state are more manageable, and with more and more moderate candidates looking to use just the New Hampshire primary as a springboard to the nomination, a strong finish in Iowa, coupled with a New Hampshire victory, could make Romney very difficult to beat. If anything, it would help give his campaign an edge over candidates like Huntsman who are avoiding Iowa and who would find it much more difficult to find traction here.
It is also important to note that, while John McCain retreated to New Hampshire to save his fledgling campaign four years ago, he didn’t skip Iowa. In fact, his remaining Iowa staff kept plugging away. The small commitment McCain made in Iowa paid huge dividends when his campaign made a comeback. Right before the caucuses, McCain also made visits to Iowa and finished in a surprisingly strong fourth place.
If Romney is serious about winning the Republican nomination, he needs to get something out of Iowa, just like John McCain did. The notion that Iowa is too socially conservative is utter nonsense. Tim Pawlenty, another former blue state Republican governor, seems to believe that he can build a following in Iowa despite having supported some liberal policies such as cap-and-trade.
If Romney is the frontrunner that the media says he is, he must compete in states like Iowa and South Carolina. By choosing not to, he is essentially showing weakness in his campaign and message. If the ultimate goal is to defeat President Obama, a swing state like Iowa could be critical in accumulating enough electoral votes.
Let’s also not forget, it was Romney who chastised John McCain and Rudy Giuliani for cutting and running out of Iowa. It was his campaign operatives who hired someone to follow John McCain around in Iowa in a chicken suit. And it was Mitt Romney himself who said, “If you can’t compete in the heartland, if you can’t compete in Iowa in August, how are you going to compete in January when the caucuses are held, and how are you going to compete in November?”
Mitt Romney may not realize it, but he needs Iowa more than Iowa needs Mitt Romney. I agree with his statement after his win at the Iowa Straw Poll. If you can’t compete in the heartland, you’re not really competing.
If Romney is serious about winning the Republican nomination, he must show that he’s willing to campaign hard in places like Iowa and South Carolina. With Mike Huckabee out of the race, it seems like Iowa would be a place where Romney could see opportunity instead of heartache.
Romney’s visit to Iowa last Friday showed that there is plenty of interest in the presumed Republican frontrunner. Unfortunately, it is clear that the feeling isn’t mutual. As Romney made his way to the Chevy Tahoe outside of the State Historical Building, well-wishers and members of the media surrounded him. As you would expect from most politicians, Romney shook every hand available on the way to his vehicle. One of them was mine. As I shook his hand, I thanked him for coming to Iowa.
Without Iowa in 2007, Mitt Romney would have never been considered a frontrunner for the 2008 Republican nomination. Without Iowa in 2007, Mitt Romney would not be the frontrunner for the 2012 nomination. Like John McCain, he might not even have to win the caucuses to get the bump he needs. While Romney, his team, and the national media are convinced that the Iowa caucuses need Mitt Romney to remain relevant, it’s Romney who once again needs Iowa if he wants to capture the Republican nomination.
Photo by Dave Davidson
blog comments powered by Disqus