Enough already, let’s get on with the voting! After more than a year of campaigning and media hype, 13 major debates, tens of millions of dollars worth of negative campaign ads and endless political ups and downs, about 120,000 Iowa Republicans will turn out tonight at caucuses in all 99 counties to cast ballots for their favorite presidential candidate. While only a sliver of the state’s overall electorate will take part in this 2012 presidential season opener, the results will likely have a huge impact on the course of the campaign and the fate of the main GOP contenders.
Just when it seemed Mitt Romney could never win the votes –much less the hearts – of many conservative and Tea Party Republicans in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor is suddenly riding atop the polls. Meanwhile, surging former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul slug it out for a coveted second-place finish. Three other Republicans who briefly gloried in their front-runner status are now struggling to make a respectable showing and earn a ticket out of Iowa: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
So how will this all turn out tonight and who will get the biggest Iowa bounce? Who better to predict the outcome than David Yepsen, the one-time dean of the Iowa political press corps and now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Yepsen spent 34 years with the Des Moines Register as the paper’s chief political writer, political editor and political columnist.
He has covered every presidential campaign since Democrat Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses in 1976 and go on to topple Republican President Gerald Ford. And his influence was such that he was often the first reporter that aspiring presidential candidates called. And his take on presidential debates often heavily influenced national coverage.
We caught up with Yepsen in Des Moines, and here’s what he had to say about tonight’s GOP caucuses.
The Fiscal Times: Okay, David. No use beating around the bush. Give us your prediction for the outcome of the Iowa caucuses tonight. Who will finish first, second and third?
YEPSEN: If the social conservatives stay divided, Romney will probably win. If they continue to rally around Santorum they could put him over the top. Ron Paul's organization is considered the best. The conventional wisdom is that those three will be the top three finishers.
TFT: What does a first or second-place showing mean for Mitt Romney going forward? Why have Iowan Republicans begun to warm up to him after seemingly searching for a candidate who was anyone but Romney?
YEPSEN: First place for Romney would boost his chances in New Hampshire, where they are already pretty good. He could do what [Democratic senator] John Kerry did in ‘04 -- win Iowa, then New Hampshire and start to roll up the nomination pretty fast. If he comes in second, it will be seen as a setback but not a fatal one. His [last minute] decision to compete in Iowa was a worthwhile one. If he wins, he saves himself headaches later. If he loses, he's got to fight off an insurgent challenger in New Hampshire and beyond. Had he not competed, he would have had to face off that challenger. So he's no worse off for having tried to run the table.
TFT: If Ron Paul finishes first, where does he go from here? Do his strict libertarian views on the economy and government and isolationist views on foreign policy and intervention (ala Iran and Israel) put him too far outside the mainstream of Republican and independent thought to go much further? And do you think he might well end up mounting a Third Party candidacy?
YEPSEN: Ron Paul is on to something in the electorate. People are angry. Americans are turning inward. The Isolationist v. Internationalist fight has been ebbing and flowing in the Republican Party for generations. Those who want to see America stick to their knitting at home have a lot of support, and it's interesting how he gets lots of veterans at his rallies.
No one knows about the Third Party candidacy. My guess is he's seen what a waste of time those efforts often are.
TFT: Rick Santorum suddenly is getting a lot of attention and is showing real movement in the polls. Should we take his candidacy seriously now, or will he turn out to be just another Republican “flavor of the month,” like Bachmann, Perry and Gingrich?
YEPSEN: You should always take a flavor of the month seriously, lest they become a bestseller. He's likely to do well in Iowa and get a media bump out of here. The question is whether he can sustain it down the road. Subsequent contests happen so quickly he may not have time to ramp up an organization and raise the money he needs to compete in them. New Hampshire's electorate may not be as hospitable to a social conservative like Santorum.
At a minimum, I think Santorum will become a higher profile figure in American politics because of his Iowa showing the way [former Arkansas governor] Mike Huckabee has. If he doesn't make it this time, he's young enough to run again -- or be the vice presidential candidate if Romney doesn't pick Huckabee.
TFT: Every four years we hear the same complaint about the Iowa caucuses – that the actions of 120,000 idiosyncratic Republican voters in an idiosyncratic state -- play such an outsize role in choosing the leader of the free world. What is your response to that?
YEPSEN: There's always been criticism of Iowa's role. It's understandable and a lot of people in other states are jealous of the attention given to Iowa and New Hampshire. It's important to remember that Iowa starts the process; it doesn't finish it. Iowa’s role has sometimes been to elevate people who get the nomination and win the White House but it's more often a winnower of weaker candidates. This contest could go longer than past GOP contests because more states are getting rid of winner-take-all and allocating delegates proportionate to the vote they got in that state's primary.
Also remember that these are activists. We're not talking about stereotypical Iowans. The people who show up here at these events are like the people you see at a Republican National Convention -- fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, Second Amendment advocates, etc.
And finally, Iowa has been and is again a battleground state. Look at the national votes in the last four election cycles and you'll see how Iowa's general election results mirror those. Iowa's not typical. No state is. Wherever you start the selection of an American president you have a big story and whenever a political columnist is hard up for a column, we write about how the process is screwed up.
TFT: For the non-political junkie, briefly describe how the Iowa caucuses works. It has been an axiom of Iowa politics that candidates who hope to do well need to mount a sophisticated voter ID and turnout effort, with lots of door knocking and providing transportation to the caucuses. In the Internet and social networking age, is this still the case?
YEPSEN: Simple. The caucuses are neighborhood meetings. Each party is a little different. Republicans gather to hear short speeches on behalf of a candidate from their neighbors. They talk among themselves about the choices and then vote on a slip of paper. Secret ballot. No delegates are awarded on the basis of this vote. It's just a preference that's expressed. [Then they are then transmitted to a central location, and the results are released nationally].
New technologies always change political campaigns and Internet technologies are now doing that. Do we do Torchlight parades anymore?
Organizing, fundraising and communicating messages are done over Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Super PAC Television commercials are everywhere, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Stay tuned to that development because I think it will have a real impact in battleground states in November.
That said, there's still power in someone making phone calls and asking neighbors to show up for a candidate on caucus night.