In the many baleful assessments of the 2012 Republican presidential field, the running joke for months has been “somebody has to win.” Indeed, that seems to be the main reason so many pundits are confident that Mitt Romney, a candidate the party’s rank-and-file conservative stalwarts clearly don’t like and don’t want to nominate, will ultimately win the prize. But Romney’s noncommittal stance in Iowa, coupled with poll-leader Herman Cain’s lack of campaign infrastructure or regularity of visits, means the state that is set to vote first on January 3 presents a tantalizing opportunity for a dark horse or a supposed has-been to swoop in and shake up the race. And Iowa’s unique caucus dynamic—which rewards candidate loyalty and ideological purity, but doesn’t require a lot of money to compete—only makes the stage that much more inviting for Perry, Bachmann, or even Santorum to make a last-minute surge.
The biggest reason why Iowa remains an open ballgame is that the two candidates currently dominating the polls, in Iowa and nationally, haven’t really committed to competing in the state. In Mitt Romney’s case, that is very deliberate; having arguably blown the nomination in 2008 by diverting resources from New Hampshire and raising expectations in Iowa that were dashed by Mike Huckabee’s upset win, he’s obviously not eager to risk the same mistake twice. So Romney’s mainly lying back in the weeds, though he remains first or second in every Iowa poll, and is returning to the state this week for the first time since May. In Herman Cain’s case, on the other hand, his lack of organization and light schedule in Iowa have simply served as exhibit A for the argument that he’s not a serious candidate for the presidency. His activity in Iowa over the next couple of weeks will therefore be watched closely by the chattering classes with an eye to his basic viability. But unless Romney or Cain change their tactics and dive headfirst into the state, Iowans—who are extremely self-conscious about their role in the presidential nominating process—will likely not keep telling pollsters they favor the two men who are spurning their affections.
Another factor that indicates anything can happen in Iowa is the accelerated schedule, which ensures that all the candidate jousting for position will occur on a very short track. The early caucus date immediately after the holidays will reduce the attention normally paid to the campaign and greatly inhibit the ability of candidates to “go negative.” With caucuses being held, literally, on the first day most working Iowans return to the grind after an extended vacation, turnout could also be affected despite the intense interest Republicans everywhere are exhibiting in this particular presidential race. And low turnout could spell better chances for a dark-horse candidate.
Finally, because Iowa is a caucus, not a primary, it means that voters will be more ideologically driven than in primary states. Iowa GOP caucuses do not, however, involve the byzantine procedures of viability thresholds, vote-trading, and multiple divisions into preference groups that make Democratic caucuses in the state such an ordeal; people show up, vote for a presidential candidate, and then sample the pot-luck snacks. In other words, organization matters a lot, but it doesn’t have to be as extensive, expensive, or strategically adept as the finely-honed instruments deployed by Obama, Edwards, and Clinton in Iowa in 2008. Just ask Mike Huckabee, who won the GOP caucuses four years ago with a budget that would have barely lasted a week in the Democratic contest.
At this moment, then, other candidates can realistically imagine themselves launching an audacious Iowa campaign that shakes up the race. Bachmann, who won the August Iowa GOP Straw Poll, remains an obvious contender. She’s a sentimental and ideological favorite of many Iowa activists, and a close friend and ally of influential Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King, who is expected to make an influential endorsement before long. Rick Perry, despite his profound crash in the polls, will now have the opportunity to spend some of his vast budget, test-drive the shiny new Iowa organization he mainly inherited from Tim Pawlenty, and show off his allegedly superior retail political skills. And even Rick Santorum has a shot. With more appearances in the state than any other candidate, he has long competed with Bachmann for the favor of hardcore, single-issue social conservatives, who are perhaps more formidable in Iowa than in any other early state. Moreover, his persistence, reflected in the symbolic gesture of pledging to campaign in all 99 counties, is the sort of monomaniacal Iowa-centric behavior activists there like to reward.
With just over ten weeks until voting begins, Iowa’s hardcore conservatives have yet to settle on an ultimate champion. This might very well tempt Romney to abandon his sensible strategy of focusing on New Hampshire and Nevada and instead try for an early sweep by beating divided competition in the caucuses. One thing, at least, is certain: The current state of irresolution, for both anti-Romney conservatives and for Romney himself, won’t last much longer. So you can expect some real turbulence in Iowa during the next few weeks, as Romney and Cain make their decisions about the state’s importance and their rivals try to get attention before the shiny distractions of the holidays take hold. After all, somebody has to win.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.