The Moderate's Dilemma

Election 2012
The Iowa Caucus coming first on the calendar makes it a media event. But it doesn't necessarily make it a proper Republican litmus test.

In the modern age of the GOP – which originated with Newt Gingrich’s historic 1994 midterm grab of the House of Representatives – moderate Republicans tend to travel an unusual road during presidential primary season, particularly in relation to the Iowa caucus. Four years ago, early Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani took trumped-up media warnings about his caucus viability to heart. Sensing that an East Coast pro-choicer could never win in corn country, he bypassed Iowa altogether. On the advice of his campaign manager Mike DuHaime, he also skipped New Hampshire and South Carolina and focused his full campaign efforts on Florida. But by the time Florida – with all of its pro-Rudy retired New Yorkers – rolled around, Giuliani already had three losses to his name and the media had made him an afterthought. He finished third in the Sunshine State and dropped out before Super Tuesday, later admitting his strategy to be a colossal mistake.

Mitt Romney now faces an even more curious dilemma. The once-liberal former Massachusetts governor and son of one of history’s most prominent Rockefeller Republicans, Romney has maintained just enough organization in Iowa to make a dent, but not enough so that it looks like he’s trying. Any sign of concerted effort on his part in Iowa will only make it more embarrassing for him when he comes in third here.

Blame the media or blame the demographic makeup of Iowa’s GOP base, but moderate Republicans – as in Romney’s case, the strongest kind in general elections – no longer engage with the Hawkeye State except in a pattern of confusing mixed messages (Romney was the lone candidate to skip a family values-themed debate in Iowa, but also flip-flopped in order to publicly support ethanol subsidies – one of the most important Republican caucus issues). In fact, no moderate Republican has won Iowa, or even really attempted to, since 1980, when George Bush topped Reagan in the caucus 32 to 30 percent.

That the Iowa caucus comes first on the calendar makes it a media event, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a proper Republican litmus test. If it weren’t first in line, chronologically, wouldn’t Iowa be just like any other interchangeable Christian state handing delegates to the most morally conservative candidate (like Mike Huckabee in ’08)? But in kicking off the race, the Iowa caucus instead becomes the most unjustifiably powerful staple of the entire process – one that front-running moderates have to treat with caution.

It’s interesting to note that in ’08, when he was not the front-runner, Romney spent a lot of time and money in Iowa and ended up with 25 percent of the vote, second to Huckabee and 12 points higher than John McCain. He also won the Ames straw poll, which almost always goes to a red-meat Bible-thumper (like Michele Bachmann this time around). So it’s not impossible for an East Coast moderate to compete in Iowa. It’s just frightening for a front-runner to try.

Interesting, too, that Romney truly started engaging Iowans only when he felt his front-runner status slipping, back in early December when Newt Gingrich became impossible to ignore. Romney released a commercial in Iowa harping on Gingrich’s criticism of the Paul Ryan entitlements plan (a Republican holy grail) as “right-wing social engineering.” The commercial featured numerous cable pundits wondering aloud whether Gingrich had turned left. The ad colored Newt as a closet liberal, and Romney as the true conservative for Iowa voters. Considering Romney’s health-care record in Massachusetts, the “Mitt is more conservative than Newt” concept seems a pretty big pill to swallow.

As much focus is placed on how Romney and Gingrich engage with Iowa Republicans, we should also think for a moment about how the Iowans must feel. A one-term Massachusetts governor who once labeled himself a “progressive,” who designed the very model upon which Obamacare was based, who willfully avoids Iowa because he thinks he’s too rich and educated to be likable there? And who’s he running against? That flamboyant fellow who kept shutting down the government back in the Nineties, who almost ruined his own party by pursuing impeachment proceedings against a second-term president with a 70 percent approval rating during good economic times? Dear God. It makes you wish Chris Christie had jumped in when he had the chance (then again, he’s an East Coaster with the same campaign guru, Mike DuHaime, who steered Rudy to failure in ’08).

All in all, it seems the Iowa caucus will go to Gingrich, with a decent vote count for Romney. The media will interpret the results ten million different ways and then we’ll move on – to New Hampshire (Romney), South Carolina (Gingrich), Florida (up for grabs) and then Super Tuesday (get out the popcorn). As in every case since 1980, Iowa Republicans will give a bigger-than-deserved boost to the morally conservative candidate at the expense of the moderate who might actually win in November. And since Iowa comes first, this will seem far more important than when, say, Alabama or Utah does the exact same thing.