In the lead up to voting in the presidential nominating contest, the only thing that reliably rivals the scrutiny received by Iowa is the disparagement expressed against the tyranny of the Great Corn Idol. With its unrepresentative electorate, its peculiar demands on candidates, and its odd procedures for making its preferences manifest, the Iowa caucuses have been singled out by many as an ill-conceived ritual whose time is long past. Back in June, Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart celebrated Mitt Romney’s apparent decision (apparently now reversed) to shirk the state, arguing “the Iowa caucuses bear only a faint resemblance to democracy.”
And beyond Romney’s initial strategy of making only minimal effort in the state, there have been other cheerful signs for Iowa-haters that the first-in-the-nation caucus was losing its storied influence. The candidates most married to a slavish Iowa-first approach—Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum—have not fared well, even in Iowa itself, with local polls instead closely mirroring the rapid attention swings in the national media. The quadrennial ritual of candidates violating their principles to embrace ethanol subsidies has all but expired. And the wacky band of Christian Right activists who draw their oxygen from an outsized role in the caucuses is now in danger of irrelevance due to an inability to agree on a presidential vehicle.
But ironically, the very volatility of the GOP race that has threatened Iowa’s power could revive it in a big way once the caucuses actually happen. In an election cycle where Republican voters everywhere seem to shift their shallow allegiances every time a candidate shines or stumbles in any of an endless parade of debates, the massive hype and media attention that will shower the eventual Iowa winner could prove decisive in the other early states.
Lost in the confusion of wildly oscillating polling numbers among Republicans during 2011 has been the fact that, with the arguable exception of New Hampshire, all the states have been oscillating in synch. When Michelle Bachmann narrowly won the arcane Iowa GOP Straw Poll in August (helped by a good debate performance in New Hampshire), she got a strong bounce everywhere and moved into double-digits nationally. Rick Perry’s big surge after entering the race happened everywhere, as have the Cain and Gingrich surges since then. And while southern states have shown something of a bias for the more conservative candidates, a comparison of polling trends for all the candidates in Iowa and South Carolina (two states with a lot of available polls) shows extraordinary similarity over time.
Perhaps the apparent lack of significant regional variations signifies the conquest of the GOP everywhere by the conservative movement. But the alternative explanation is that Republican voters this year are so irresolute about their presidential field—aside from the negative judgments they’ve made about Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and, most recently, Herman Cain—that the last impression they take into the voting booth could be decisive. If that’s the case, the prospect of a candidate getting on a roll after Iowa is especially strong.
Moreover, the idea that Iowa will provide one lucky candidate with a big boost is all the more probable now that nearly all of them are staking just about everything on a good performance in the caucuses. Bachmann and Santorum have been in that position all along, focusing almost entirely on Iowa. Perry will inevitably be depicted as the successor to Texas’ long line of lavishly funded but feckless presidential candidates (John Connolly, Lloyd Bentsen, and Phil Gramm) if he can’t do well in the caucuses. And if Romney is indeed “all in” for Iowa, a loss could have the very 2008-style deflationary impact his campaign has long feared. Indeed, the only outcome that might vindicate the hopes of Iowa-haters would be a Ron Paul win. But now that Paul has done the other candidates the supreme favor of throwing the first boulder at Newt Gingrich, he is in serious danger of suffering from Iowans’ famous antipathy to negative campaigning.
Of course, thanks to changes in the nominating calendar, there will be a significant lull in contests after Florida votes on January 31, so a candidacy like Romney’s with strong financial and organizational advantages could well survive early setbacks in Iowa and elsewhere and still go on to ultimate victory, particularly since all his rivals have weaknesses in their backgrounds or a tendency to commit gaffes that could produce yet another self-destruction in a cycle littered with them. But make no mistake: When Iowans trudge through the frigid night to their caucus sites on January 3, the odds are high their decision will have the kind of powerful impact on the race that Peter Beinart fears.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.