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The Iowa Independent’s 2012 Republican Power Rankings, March 14

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinPointing_Thumb1.jpgMore than three years have passed, yet The Iowa Independent’s Republican Power Rankings are beginning right where they left off with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee leading the Republican pack.

During November 2007, in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, The Iowa Independent unveiled its Democratic and Republican Power Rankings. Today we continue and build on that tradition.

Perspectives have been culled from our staff members, additional state political reporters, party activists, academics, elected officials, political consultants and other insiders to create these rankings. While unscientific, the ranks provide insights that cannot be garnered in traditional polling or from any one pundit as to a candidate’s organizational strength in the Hawkeye State.

All those invited to participate are asked to answer one question: “If the Iowa caucus was held tonight, what would be the results?”

The rankings below provide a snapshot in time based on educated guesses and “gut instincts.” Campaigns, such as they are at this point in the 2012 season, were evaluated based on personal perceptions and input from others as to the quality of shoe-leather activity, ability to motivate possible caucus attendees and second-choice support.

If the Republican caucuses were held tonight, this is how we think it would end:** **

  • Mike Huckabee — There were two key reasons given repeatedly by our panel for their rankings: Name recognition and proximity to Iowans. The former Arkansas governor who stole the caucus show in 2008 continues to have both. His statewide organization was never dismantled. In fact, many of those who supported Huckabee previously were called into action during the 2010 judicial retention vote in Iowa by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats.

“‘I like Mike’ is still the most common line in Iowa,” notes one contributor. “Huck has a strong residual organization in Iowa awaiting his run. [But] organization is not everything, and Huck’s message of small government, return to more traditional cultural norms and optimistic support for the ‘everyman’ remains as or more popular than it was in 2007.”

In contrast, however, another of our panelists warns that “Iowans are notoriously fickle on their support of someone when it comes to caucuses — just ask Tom Vilsack.”

The Huckabee brand remains a force among Iowa Republicans, and only Huckabee himself seems in a position to dismantle it. Nearly 80 percent of our participants believed Huckabee would have a repeat first place performance if the caucuses were held tonight. Half of those in the remaining 20 percent didn’t include Huckabee in their rankings at all due to their belief that he wouldn’t be running.

  • Tim Pawlenty — Proximity? Yes. Name recognition? Getting there.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty appears to have everything going for him in relation to early 2012 politics. He has the proximity to Iowa, has caught the eye of the national press, garnered support from key Iowa politicos and is honing a message that seems well received by Iowa Republicans. What Pawlenty lacks, according to our contributors, are the intangibles that Huckabee has in droves: Charisma and an ability to connect with people in small settings.

“Pawlenty will likely be a lot of people’s second choice, which is both good and bad. There certainly isn’t room for both he and fellow Minnesotan Bachmann, who has a lot more charisma and a lot higher name ID, at the top of Iowa power rankings,” noted one participant.

In general, several of our panelists noted that Pawlenty comes across as “too slick and polished” to earn widespread support in the Iowa caucus. But, each is also quick to point out that it is still early and that Pawlenty has attracted key and influential Iowans to his team. In short, we suspect that Pawlenty will remain a mainstay in the Power Rankings.

  • Newt Gingrich — At least one of our participants believes that if the caucuses were held tonight that the former U.S. Speaker of the House would come out on top.

“Even though he has some hefty negatives, it’s early enough that his name and ‘former U.S. Speaker of the House’ title would push him to a strong finish.”

Other participants, however, aren’t ready to say that Gingrich’s failed marriages wouldn’t play negatively, especially among voters that have historically held close to social conservative principles. Even while acknowledging that Gingrich’s recent admission of helping to locate seed money for the push to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices that overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, our panelists aren’t willing to give a free ride on name recognition alone.

“Newt has not caught fire and he’s been prominent in pachyderm leadership for almost two decades. Familiarity has not bred contempt, but it also has not bred affection. You rarely hear much emotional commitment to Newt, even among his supporters. It took World War II for the British to overcome their distaste for Winston Churchill, who was always known to be the smartest politician of the generation. We are close to that crises now so maybe this is Newt’s time.”

  • Mitt Romney — The former Massachusetts governor arguably has name recognition at least equal to that of Huckabee. Romney is also known, at least locally, as being one of best one-on-one and small group campaigners in the field. What’s holding Romney back in these rankings, and presumably in Iowa as a whole, is his own lack of initiative.

“You know those movies with the ‘sleeper agents’ who are activated by a secret password?” asked one of our participants. “All the Romney supporters are still in place and haven’t gone away — they are just quiet right now. When Romney ‘gives the password,’ (i.e. begins handing out checks), they will be activated again.”

Several of our participants also noted Romney is at least considering skipping the caucuses and focusing more on other early states. If that type of talk continues, or if Romney continues to skip Iowa events, his fortune will almost certainly continue to decline.

“Iowa caucus attendees can overlook flaws for a candidate that comes into the state and attempts to reach out to voters. They will not, however, support a candidate that doesn’t support the Iowa system — and only providing money to local candidates isn’t enough.”

  • Michele Bachmann — Proximity, name recognition and the support of a certain Iowa congressman were the three determining factors that narrowly placed Minnesota’s Congresswoman Bachmann into our first top five.

“Bachmann is an Iowa native [and] congresswoman from neighboring Minnesota who is a major ally of U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). His endorsement alone is worth its weight in bronze.”

Bachmann, who is expected to garner a large share of support from tea party activists and social conservatives, has a fate that is inextricably hitched to that of Huckabee. If he officially plunges into the 2012 race, her stock sinks. If he openly announces that he will not seek the party’s nomination, Bachmann is poised to build a coalition from her two key demographics that is likely unattainable for other candidates leading our first rankings.

Participants in the 2012 Power Rankings weren’t provided a list of candidates from which to choose. Instead, the entire field was at their disposal. And, as is typically the case, several candidates were included in individual rankings that, when the math was complete, didn’t rise into the the final five. Perhaps the most surprising of those candidates was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who was included by more than 60 percent of our participants.

Paul, who made frequent appearances in our 2007 rankings, isn’t a candidate that made an extensive personal effort since that time to maintain an Iowa organization. But Paul’s organization has often proven that it doesn’t necessarily need an active leader in order to remain a force in local politics.

As one of our participants noted, “He’ll always have the Paultards, as Dave Weigel so eloquently put it, and that keeps him in the ballgame.”

Our participants, however, couldn’t reach consensus on whether or not Paul remains a force in the Iowa caucuses. While nearly ever participant that included Paul noted his fiscal message would attract voters, they split on whether his more recent foray into social conservative circles would ultimately benefit his campaign. Nonetheless, according to our panel, Paul has evolved from “weirdo fringe” to a much more legitimate candidate.

Although it isn’t necessarily unusual for Iowans to diverge from the political landscape carefully crafted by national pundits, there is little doubt that a few eyebrows were raised by the absence of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin from our rankings.

Less than half of our participants included Palin, although some noted that she, like Huckabee, was purposefully excluded on the perception that she wouldn’t run. Others, however, don’t see any political future for Palin if she doesn’t make a bid for the presidency.

“Palin has no choice but to run,” noted one contributor. “If she’s not in the race, Palin is irrelevant, which is about the worst possible fate for reality TV stars. The Republican Iowa Caucuses without Sarah Palin would be like “Jersey Shore” with no Snooki.”

Four other potential candidates caught the eye of our contributors:

Former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum definitely has the social conservative credentials to play in Iowa, but “people want a winner,” and Santorum has yet to tell Iowans how he can win a presidential contest when he failed to retain his senate seat.

Despite a moderately successful and recent trip into Iowa, conservative talk jock and businessman Herman Cain hasn’t become a favorite of our panel. Less than a quarter included him, despite the fact that he is only committed candidate for the 2012 race thus far. “[Cain] is working hard for the tea party vote,” noted a contributor, “but tea party members who are pure fiscal conservatives (and want the GOP to stop talking about social issues) are still greatly outnumbered by the social conservatives in the GOP caucus process, and Cain finds himself having to share those supporters with other Republican candidates.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has been a frequent visitor to Iowa, but was only included in the rankings of one of our participants, who handed Barbour a dismal sixth place finish.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels fared only slightly better by earning a second place finish from one of our contributors. “If the GOP is looking for a policy credentialed winner, the Indiana governor is the likely option,” that participant wrote while noting that Daniels has received praise from prominent Iowa Republicans, including Gov. Terry Branstad.

Our second set of Power Rankings are scheduled for Monday, March 27, and we expect to publish additional reports at two-week intervals throughout the 2012 season.

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