This year, most of the Republican presidential candidates aren't even trying to win the state's caucuses
The presidential candidates will keep visiting, the pundits will keep watching, and the state continues to provide an alluring stage for political theater, with another debate in Des Moines on Saturday. But this year, the idea of Iowa in presidential politics will probably die.
Iowa has long been heralded as a bulwark against the money and media that dominate the modern presidential race. Its caucus requires voters in every precinct to actually gather in a room, at one time, and listen to neighbors pitch their chosen candidates, before they are allowed to vote. Months spent recruiting local leaders for that task, and building grassroots support on the ground, can trump the expensive advertising air wars that dominate most primaries. So grassroots candidates actually have a chance to out-organize frontrunners and beat the media's flavor of the month.That's how long-shots like Jimmy Carter and Mike Huckabee got started.
Sitting out Iowa, by contrast, is supposed to be dangerous to a campaign's health. "Past candidates have not done well in the caucuses without investing substantial time in the state," notes a dry entry in the Des Moines Register's official guide. Since 1976, when both parties placed Iowa first on the calendar, the candidate who won the caucus went on to win the nomination over 70 percent of the time. Winning the "Iowa Way" was the best way to win, period.
This year, however, most first-tier Republican candidates aren't even trying.
With the exception of Rick Santorum, whose underdog campaign arranged 227 events in all 99 counties, the contenders have simply declined to flood the state with staff or appearances. Rick Perry has spent just 17 days on the ground. Mitt Romney, who is playing down expectations, limited himself to eight days.
The newest "front-runner," Newt Gingrich, has racked up 50 days in the state, but unlike years past, Gingrich's appearances are far more ceremonial than organizational. After mass resignations this summer, he had literally no Iowa office or staff until last week. The campaign just opened one office in Urbandale, an affordable suburb of Des Moines, and hired about five local staff.
Gingrich's phantom front-runner model is evident in the latest polls, which show him leading among potential Republican voters -- even though only about 10 percent of them have actually heard from his campaign. That is under half the contact rate for the Bachmann and Paul Campaigns. It also trails the pace last cycle, when top campaigns had dozens of field offices and hundreds of staff in the state.
Robert Parker, a retired teacher who served as a county chair for the Huckabee Campaign, recalled much more activity in 2007.
"A candidate was here every week in central Iowa," he said in a recent interview. Parker, 76, helped organize three events for Huckabee last cycle, and he recounted a "groundswell" for the campaign in small towns across the state.
In that race, Huckabee spent a twentieth of Romney's Iowa budget and won by a convincing 9 points. (Another other cash-strapped candidate, John McCain, came in third and went on to get the nomination, of course.)
This time, with far less staff or volunteer organizing on the ground, the race is more contingent on media than ever before.
A win by Gingrich, who leads the current polls, would probably render field organizing quaint. It would break Iowa's iron rule, demonstrating that at least for famous candidates, the entire ground game can be swapped for a media parachute strategy: Drop into Iowa for message events, TV debates and, of course, that televised speech on caucus night.
Gingrich alluded to this approach in an interview with Radio Iowa last week, contrasting his advantages to Romney's "huge" assets. "We just generate immense amounts of earned media," Gingrich emphasized, slipping into consultant jargon for events aimed at drawing free media, rather than paying for it. "Well, that's not going to stop," he said.