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Iowa 2012 Power Rankings: Candidates swarm, but no clear frontrunner

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2012-80.jpgIf there was one single campaign action or movement from the past two weeks that could be drawn out and held up as brilliant, most of our panelists believe it is a tiny tag line implemented by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign. A “unifying choice” seems to be the thing Iowa Republicans crave most.

The panelists who contribute to these twice-monthly predictions are Iowa ground activists, academics, state political reporters, political consultants and others with a keen interest in the 2012 GOP nomination process. None are asked to provide their personal preferences, but to make a determination based on ground activity, campaign strength and other observations as to who would win the Iowa caucuses at a certain point in time.

Since mid-March they have been watching the give and take of the GOP field, and patiently waiting for one or two candidates to emerge as Iowa favorites. But what they’ve observed are typical up and down bounces that candidates receive after making official announcements, adding (or losing) staff members and hitting local airwaves with advertisements.

This isn’t because there’s been a lack of ground activity in Iowa. Indeed, nearly every unique facet of the Republican Party has had its thumb in the 2012 pie. Iowa tea party activists have, for instance, completed a bus tour throughout the state. Religious conservatives and state party officials have each been holding lectures featuring various candidates. Candidates have met behind closed doors with prominent church leaders, fiscal watchdogs and business interests.

“We’ve seen candidates reaching out to Des Moines and to various constituency groups, but what we aren’t seeing — at least not as much thus far as we have in the past — is the county party system coming into play. Sure there have been a few dinners and luncheons that have had candidates offer keynote addresses, but it seems that if ground activists want to see the candidates right now, their best bet is to go to a constituency and not a party event. I hope that changes,” said one panelist, who serves in county party leadership.

Another panelist adds, “I think a lot of people see Iowa as a house divided, but I don’t really think that’s the case. What I do see is people trying to decide if the candidate who most matches their social values can also be the candidate who can win a national campaign against what we know will be a Democratic money machine. They are trying to decide, no matter which Republican makes it into the White House, if they have enough influence and noise-making capabilities, if you will, to force their issues to the forefront. They want to show off their muscles, prove their strength, but they are also very focused on the general election.”

Here’s how we think the 2012 caucuses would end if they were held tonight:

  • Michele Bachmann — Several items — some within the control of the Bachmann campaign and some without — that are continuing to coalesce around the Bachmann campaign and keep her at the top of our rankings. “There is no doubt that the John Wayne Gacy gaffe hurt Bachmann with Iowans, but the negative response from the GOP base was tampered because the error was so quickly picked up by the liberal media. Once again, it looked like a strong conservative woman being unduly attacked by members of the media, and provided an opportunity for some Iowans — but not all — to look the other way and dismiss the real issue presented by the statement. The real issue is that we have a candidate who spent months building an ‘I am one of you’ drumbeat, and days touting how she knew Iowa and specifically Waterloo inside and out. The statement proved she’s only been reading from a faulty script and has no more kept Waterloo in her heart than Gacy himself did.”

Another panelist notes that “killer clowns not withstanding, she did a good announcement tour here. She’s up on radio and TV, and she benefits from the debt ceiling debate in DC — which makes her purity rating go up.”

Yet, the fact that Bachmann is doing so well in Iowa isn’t only credit to her campaign strategy in the state.

“She is surging now, despite the fact she’s still really just now getting off the ground in Iowa, which is a testimony to the overall weakness of the field in the minds of many voters. Barring a complete and total self-inflilcted meltdown, I now can’t foresee how she doesn’t win the Iowa caucuses if this is the field. She’s drawing rock star-like crowds. My friend Wes Enos, who was Mike Huckabee’s political director in 2008 and is with Bachmann now, says he never saw crowds for Huckabee like Bachmann is currently attracting.”

The key for her campaign, according to our panelists, is to solidify support and remain aggressive.

“Former House Speaker Christopher Rants calls Bachmann and Pawlenty “the Minnesota twins” and clearly Bachmann is getting the better of this battle. She inspires passionate supporters and Pawlenty just isn’t catching fire with caucus goers. People can’t feel mildly positive about a candidate — they’ve got to be wild about a candidate.

  • Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/tpaw_125.jpg**Tim Pawlenty** and Mitt Romney — The former ‘M’-state governors remain in a dead heat, according to the panel members, who seem somewhat bemused by what they view as a momentum gain for Romney and a lull for Pawlenty. “What happened? On paper [Pawlenty] looks like he has the goods — a smart, good-looking, middle class Governor who will ride in to save us from Washington. But the reality is like too many campaigns we’ve seen before – he fails to connect with a defined base, can’t seem to muster the dollars to broaden his base through a rigorous TV campaign (if the caucuses were all about TV/Radio I’ll bet this guy is looking strong right now.) He’s coming off like a wet noodle — that guy with the sweaty hands at the high school dance. His trajectory reminds me way too much of the Vilsack for President campaign.”

Another agrees. “I don’t say this very often, but I agree with Doug Gross. His comments to Reuters that Pawlenty is trying to appeal to all segments of the Republican Party, and thus ends up appealing to really none of them, are spot on.”

More perplexing is that Pawlenty has arguably “placed all his eggs in the Iowa basket” and now appears somewhat content to toss the basket about.

“It isn’t necessarily unusual for a candidate to want to lower expectations, but it isn’t even August and Tim Pawlenty isn’t considered a frontrunner. But if the strategy isn’t lowering expectations for himself, then it seems to be lowering expectations for the Iowa contest,” a panelist said in connection to an interview Pawlenty gave to the Christian Broadcasting Network.

The main advantage Pawlenty holds — and has held for several weeks — is his campaign staff.

“His organization is the best of any candidate. He’s also started to address concerns about his being too low key. He’s done so by saying that you can be tough without being a jerk, but also by being more direct in his criticism of Obama’s policies. My favorite was his manure spreader metaphor, which probably went over pretty well among Republican farmers. Still, Pawlenty has started to downplay the importance of the straw poll. That’s understandable given Bachmann’s buzz, but at a certain point that great organization he has needs to produce and if it doesn’t come through at the straw poll it will be very difficult for Pawlenty to convince caucus-goers that he’s the one they should support.”

If the panelists are somewhat confused at why Pawlenty isn’t more of frontrunner, they are equally confused at what they perceive as a Romney escalation in the Hawkeye State.

“Given last week’s terrible fundraising numbers and other factors hurting Pawlenty, there’s no other way for me to interpret things at the moment than to say Romney has real traction among establishment Republicans in Iowa,” noted one panelist.

What many panelists see is Romney benefiting from a wide field of candidates all vying for the same demographics of supporters — religious conservatives and tea party activists.

“There is a splitting occurring because there are a core group of established candidates, as well as some rumored candidates, that are all trying to appeal to the same subset of voters. And, specifically, these are generally voters that would not find Romney acceptable as an ultimate general election candidate. So long as those groups don’t find a favorite, Romney is poised to scoop up the Iowa caucuses — something he tried hand-over-fist, over-fists-of-money to do in 2008.”

There is also something to be said about eventual electability, and who has the perceived ability to match the Obama campaign dollar-for-dollar.

“Republicans who care mostly about the candidate who has the best shot of winning are going to coalesce around Romney, whether he works hard in Iowa or not. Savvy GOP voters are worried that candidates who are working hard to win over a subset of Republican activists may be alienating the critical bloc of independent voters needed to win the general.”

  • Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/paul_125.jpg**Ron Paul** — While there has not been any news in the past two weeks that thrusts the Texas Congressman ahead of the pack, he likewise has not suffered from some of the negative reports that have happened to others. For that reason he remains a distant fourth to the top three, but is expected to rank in the top five on caucus night, barring any major problems. “Paul has loyal supporters who will show up for the straw poll and caucuses, but he probably won’t bring in a lot more folks to his camp,” a panelist notes.

That being said, Paul does have a national topic on the current forefront of American politics that should help his name recognition and polling in the Hawkeye State. But are panelists are concerned because they don’t see Paul moving quickly enough to take advantage of such a potential national boost.

“Why doesn’t he have State Rep. Kim Pearson, a pro-life champion in the Iowa House, going 99 counties to talk about his pledge to veto any budget that includes Planned Parenthood funding? Why doesn’t he have his well-liked son, Sen. Rand Paul, essentially turning Iowa into his second home? Why doesn’t he have activists/authors like Thomas Woods holding townhalls and conferences in Iowa about the need to repeal Obamacare?” questioned one of our panelists.

Paul does return to the state this week, and his son will be campaigning on his behalf later in the month. If discussions about the debt ceiling and national finance continue to garner headlines, Paul could gain the polls.

  • Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/cain_125.jpg**Herman Cain** — Despite the fact that Cain returns to the state this week to launch his state headquarters, the panelists remain timid. “Staff troubles are making him look like a flash in the pan, tabloid fodder,” one explained.

Another panelist that considered Cain to be “a serious threat” a few weeks ago, now says he’s “not sure anyone has ever gone supernova in the Iowa caucuses quicker than Cain has.”

Most, however, are taking a wait-and-see approach before pronouncing Cain’s campaign dead on arrival.

“Cain is capable of Bachmann’s blaze and doesn’t carry the Bachmann baggage. We know that he has the ability — more than anyone else in the GOP field — to fire up an audience of conservatives of all ilk. What we don’t yet know is if he has the ability to run a national campaign.”

“[W]e have to see whether his campaign remains viable. He apparently signed a lease for an Iowa HQ, so we’ll have to see if he can get a new staff in place quickly.”

  • Sarah Palin — For the second edition in a row, non-committed Palin receives enough panelist support to enter the bottom of our top five, but the reality is that nearly ever panelist that included her in their rankings did so with a stipulation that they did not believe she would ultimately join the race. “The splash at the Pella Opera House puts her back in the discussion as national pundits say she’s the only one who can choose to get in whenever she damn well pleases. Her name recognition alone in early states probably saves her campaign how much? $20 million? $50 million? Even if she is running this cycle, and I still don’t think she is, choosing to wait is the smartest investment she’s ever made.”

The bottom slot for most our panelists could have belonged to any number of candidates — former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, for instance, who many panelists believe has such limited support because his core base is already so spread between other candidates and the potential entrance of Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“I think [Santorum] will slightly out-perform his polling numbers because his overall conservative record is more than acceptable enough to many conservatives, and there remains a bevy of conservatives either uncomfortable with Bachmann’s inexperience or gender who still need a home. Not to mention the fact his high-profile Iowa field director Nick Ryan has his reputation on the line as well, so he’ll pull out all the stops.”

The bottom line from our panelists for this edition is that Iowa Republicans haven’t yet found their dream candidate, but that they’ve not given up hope. They’d like someone able to raise funds like Romney, someone able to appeal to social conservatives like Bachmann, a fiscal hawk like Paul, an exciting presence like Cain and someone considered a measured as Pawlenty.

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