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August 30th, 2011

The Five That Could Win The Iowa Caucuses

With the straw poll in Ames now in the rear view mirror, the presidential campaign in Iowa is entering a new stage. Looking back, Ames seems like it was the first round of the NFL playoffs. A few candidates, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, got first round byes. The rest needed survive the straw poll to get to the next round.

The opening round of the NFL playoffs is called “Wild Card Weekend,” a term that could also be used to describe the events surrounding the straw poll. Surviving the straw poll is a lot like advancing in the playoffs. None candidates have actually won anything yet, but the losers do go home. That was the case for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. No one else has dropped out of the race, but there are others whose fate may have been sealed with a lack-luster finish in Ames.

Those who advanced, Michele Bachmann, Congressman Ron Paul, and former Senator Rick Santorum, now will square off against Perry and Romney. Others could emerge, but it’s doubtful.

As we enter a new phase of the caucus campaigns, it’s time once again to rank the candidates based on their ability to win the Iowa caucuses. The focus will be on the five candidates who I believe have the ability to win, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. I will also comment on the other candidates that I can’t envision winning the caucuses, Herman Cain, Thad McCotter, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman, in another article.

As always, feel free to disagree in the comment section.

Candidates are ranked by their ability to win the Iowa caucuses.

1. Rick Perry:

When Perry announced his candidacy almost a month ago, he also filled a big void that existed in the GOP field. The field as it existed contained blue state governors and a number of Representatives who typically are not considered to be powerhouses as candidates for national office. The only U.S. Senator in the race lost re-election badly in 2006, and the businessman outsider couldn’t even win the Georgia Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

In modern politics, the Republican nominee has either been a sitting President, Vice President, Governor, or Senator. Since there isn’t a sitting president, vice president, or senator in the race, it should come as no surprise that the two governors’ in the race are the national front-runners.

Perry has the advantage over Romney because he hails from a red state and thus has a pretty conservative record. Romney, a blue state governor, doesn’t have a conservative record, and instead, he is credited for the predecessor of Obamacare. In an election where the most important thing on voter’s minds is beating President Obama, Perry’s pedigree makes him the favorite.

Perry’s late entrance to the race has some comparing his campaign to that of Fred Thompson four years ago. Even Perry’s Iowa chairman, Bob Haus, contributes to that narrative. Haus played a major role in Thompson’s campaign. While some might see that as a further indication that Perry’s campaign may have more in common with Thompson’s than just the late entrance to the race, the 2012 campaign is nothing like the 2008 contest.

Haus knows first hand the obstacles that a candidate who gets in the race late must overcome. While the Fred Thompson experience wasn’t ultimately successful, it did prove that a candidate could enter the race post straw poll. Thompson’s problem was that he struggled as a candidate, not that he didn’t have the time to organize. Perry seems to be an ace on the campaign trail.

More importantly, Iowa is open to Perry in a way that it never was for Thompson. At this time four years ago, Mitt Romney was the national frontrunner who was coming off a big straw poll victory in Ames. Romney’s presence in Iowa limited Thompson’s ability to catch on in the state.  Perry doesn’t have to contend with the national frontrunner in Iowa. In fact, the most recent polls indicate that he has eclipsed Romney for the frontrunner status. Instead of having to deal with the headaches that going up against a frontrunner entails, Perry is the one giving other candidates in Iowa the headaches.

2. Michele Bachmann

The afterglow from winning the straw poll seemed to fade quicker than the fumes of Bachmann’s campaign bus as it pulled away from Ames. Even though it is becoming more and more apparent that Bachmann has a lot of work to do in the state, she is well positioned to go toe-to-toe with Perry down the stretch in Iowa.

Through organizing for the straw poll, Bachmann has identified thousands of supporters from all across the state. Her campaign also made a conscious decision to reach out to pastors and other social conservative leaders in advance of the straw poll to much success. In addition to winning the straw poll, Bachmann also succeeded in building a solid foundation for a fall caucus campaign in Iowa.

Bachmann is also well positioned to go on the offensive against Perry. She has proven to be up to the task of taking on others in the race. Bachmann prevailed over one former governor who had his eyes on the Republican nomination in Tim Pawlenty, but now she will have to take on Perry if she wants to win Iowa and beyond.

3. Rick Santorum

It’s odd, but Santorum’s fourth place straw poll finish is being treated like he finished in second place. A lot of that is because the media is ignoring Ron Paul, who lost by less than one percent to Bachmann, and the third place finisher dropped out the next day. Still, Santorum seems to be this cycle’s Huckabee, a long-shot candidate with a strange last name who the media has mostly ignored to until this point.  We will have to wait and see if he can actually catch fire like Huckabee did four years ago, but Iowa’s abundant social conservatives are beginning to coalesce around Santorum’s candidacy.

As the caucuses draw near, Santorum will likely be the candidate that others seeking the Republican nomination wish would have been shown the door in Ames instead of Tim Pawlenty. That’s the nice way of me saying that Santorum is going to be a pain in the a$$ for the other candidates in the race.

While there are similarities between Huckabee and Santorum, especially their appeal to social conservatives, there are some major differences. Huckabee might be one of the greatest communicators to run for the Republican nomination. In my opinion, he’s second only to Ronald Reagan when it comes to his ability to relate to voters. Santorum is never going to be able to do that, but he makes up for it with passion and his record of accomplishments in the U.S. House and Senate.

Throughout the campaign thus far, Santorum has proven himself to be a full-spectrum conservative. He is mostly known for his stances on social issues, but he has made sure to educate voters that he’s more than just a social conservative. His ability to talk about leading welfare reform, the only time a federal entitlement has been repealed, gives him an edge over the rest of the field.

Santorum is probably the most conservative candidate in the race, yet he’s also proven to be the most thoughtful and well reasoned. That is a powerful combination. If he can fund his campaign, he could go the distance in Iowa.

4. Mitt Romney

Since this article began with a NFL analogy, I might as well use one to explain Romney’s campaign strategy – the prevent defense. Throughout the early months of this campaign, Romney has, at times, seemed almost uninterested. He’s participated in two debates, and in both instances, he seemed to be fine with just getting through unscathed. Romney’s strategy made perfect sense when he was the clear frontrunner, but the sudden emergence of Rick Perry has shown that Romney’s hardly invincible.

I was confident that Romney would reengage in Iowa post straw poll, but I’m not so sure of that now. Campaign funds are at a premium, and campaigning in Iowa against Perry and Bachmann could cost a lot of time and money. There is also something to be said for how the 2012 nominating process structured. The 2012 campaign may be a war of attrition instead of a shock and awe campaign.

Still, the defensive nature of Romney’s campaign brings with it a lot of risks, especially if Perry is able to fundraise like a front-runner. Momentum is always a very difficult thing to recapture in politics. Romney should know this first hand from his last race. A large contingent of evangelicals and home schoolers has been credited for Romney’s defeat in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. There is a lot of truth to that, but I would suggest that his campaign got caught playing prevent defense in the winter of 2007 and couldn’t stop Huckabee once he started driving the ball down the field.

When it comes to watching the Romney campaign, I get the sense that I’ve seen this movie before. This time he’s going to get caught standing flat-footed at the national level, not just in Iowa. He needs to become an aggressive candidate, or he’s going to struggle to maintain his position in the race.

5. Ron Paul

Talk about getting the shaft. Ron Paul lost to Michele Bachmann by 152 votes at the straw poll and has basically been ignored. But, it could be worse. The media could be going after him like they seem to be going after Bachmann in recent weeks.

Paul’s 4,671-vote haul in Ames is impressive and should not be overlooked. His straw poll vote total was three-and-a-half times the amount he received at the event four years earlier. If he is able multiply his caucus turnout by the same factor, it would give him 41,360 votes. That’s more than the first place finisher, Mike Huckabee, received in 2008. So, does Congressman Paul have your attention now? If not, he should.

Whether you are a fan of Paul or not, you have to admit that the country has come his direction in regards to fiscal policy over the last four years. The night before the straw poll, Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post, asked me what it would mean if Ron Paul won the straw poll following day. I had the answer in my head, but I paused for a second and Fineman jumped in and told me it would render the event irrelevant.

The answer that I would have given Fineman had our conversation not taken place across an aisle in a busy restaurant, would have been that a Paul victory in Ames would show just how serious Iowans are taking the financial crisis in Washington. Paul has been a consistent voice for years on the fed, debt, and monetary policy. Iowans are so concerned that they are even willing to overlook some beliefs candidates hold because they deeply believe that they nation must change its course and believe Paul will do what is necessary to accomplish that end.

So, now you’re probably wondering why is Paul ranked so low. Why is he ranked below a candidate that’s not even competing here? It’s because we have yet to see if Republican voters in Iowa are willing to overlook his foreign policy positions and some of his strict libertarian views that trouble social conservatives. The results at the straw poll should have Paul and his supports upbeat and confident, but his exchange with Santorum in the Fox News debate over a nuclear Iran probably cost him a victory in Ames.


Photos by Dave Davidson,

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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