Why the Iowa Caucuses Are Great for Democrats but Terrible for the GOP

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The party based on the liberal coasts benefits when presidential primary voters to drag it to the center, but the Midwestern and Southern one doesn't need the push further right.

Ron Paul - Jonathan Ernst Reuters - banner.jpg

DES MOINES -- As front-runner after front-runner has surged and then collapsed in GOP presidential primary polling, one long-time front-runner facing a fresh spate of scrutiny is the state of Iowa itself.

The unfair advantage the Hawkeye State has as the first state in the nation to weigh in during presidential contests is a topic of quadrennial debate, but it's picked up new attention this year as one unlikely pick after another has surged to the front of the Iowa polling pack.

First House Tea Party Caucus founder Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll in August, with libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- he of the racist newsletters and calls to abolish the Federal Reserve and opposition to most federal rights-protecting laws -- coming in a close second. Then former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain, never having held elective office, had a moment as the Iowa darling, soaring to the front of the pack in an October Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took Cain's place at the front of the pack only after sexual harassment and infidelity charges forced Cain from the race in early December. Now Gingrich is fading fast and Paul again seems competitive to win the state, as the Ames no. 1 or 2 finishers have done in Iowa every Republican presidential cycle since 1979. And one of the few other candidates besides Paul to have devoted real on the ground time to campaigning in Iowa, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, is surging as social conservatives begin to consolidate their support.

The only half-joking buzz right now is that if Paul wins Iowa, the story won't be that Paul, 76 and on his third presidential race, is the future of the GOP, but that Iowa has taken yet another giant step toward making its own caucuses irrelevant. After all, a party process that elevates those who have little ability to run a competitive national race and who are far to the right of the national -- and GOP -- electorate is not one that is really helping that party out. Should former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pull out a win after spending fewer than 20 days total in the state, it will show that devoting huge amounts of time and money trying to win Iowa may no longer be necessary. Whatever the outcome Tuesday, skeptics conclude, Iowa's best days as the first state in the presidential nominating contest may be over.

Both those itching to dismiss a Paul victory and those predicting Iowa will fade from the political scene are getting ahead of themselves.

Iowa will be just as -- if not more -- relevant in future presidential cycles for one unflagging reason: Democrats. Iowa does the Democratic Party good for all the same reasons it exerts a right-ward pull on an already right of center GOP: its largely white, heavily rural, somewhat older caucus-going population. Argues Michael Crowley in "Why Iowa Shouldn't Vote First Anymore" in Time magazine, "With every passing decade, Iowa's electoral character grows more out of step with the reality of the United States." The GOP caucus-electorate in 2008 was 70 percent rural or exurban; 60 percent born-again or evangelical Christian; and majority male. That's hardly what America looks like.

The picture is less conservative and more urban and female at Democratic caucuses, but not wildly more representative in other ways. This is exactly what the party of New York and Los Angeles, of Austin and Cambridge and San Francisco and yes, Washington, D.C., needs. A candidate who can win favor with progressive-minded farmers and moderate insurance processors from mid-sized cities is more likely to have broad appeal outside the cosmopolitan metropoles. Iowa Democrats have helped give their party three nominees -- Barack Obama, John Kerry and Jimmy Carter -- and unlike Iowa Republicans, shown no signs of moving radically away from the mainstream in recent years.

And while it is safe to say that Ron Paul is not going to be president of the United States, no matter what Iowa decides, his strength in Iowa has reflected something real afoot in the land. His ability to draw backers is not just a function of organizational prowess and devotion to Iowa, where he has spent fewer days than either Bachmann or Santorum, according to the Des Moines Register. There has been an intensification of libertarian sympathies in the electorate as a whole in recent years, with indicators of libertarian views reaching an all-time polling high in 2011, according to CNN. Paul has both encouraged that shift and benefited from it. This has gone hand in hand with the rise of the Tea Party, whose members have higher than average regard for libertarianism. A December 28 Pew Research Center survey found that "People who agree with the Tea Party movement see libertarianism positively by a 51 percent to 36 percent margin" -- a higher percentage of positive views than among Republicans overall, only 34 percent of whom look on the philosophy favorably. Younger voters were the most libertarian; those under 30 had positive views of libertarianism by a 50 percent to 28 percent margin. Not a huge surprise then that when Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman defected, he went to the libertarian Paul, not the socially conservative Santorum.

A Paul victory in Iowa would represent the continuation -- with a twist -- of the story of the transformation of the GOP primary electorate that saw primary victories by Tea Party candidates Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharon Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska and others in 2010. That's not so out of step with America, after all.

Alternatively, a Romney win here, followed by a blow-out in New Hampshire, his strongest state, would ratify him as front-runner, clear the field of any candidates who thought they could get away with skipping Iowa entirely, and radically undermining the ability of most of Romney's remaining competitors to raise funds. Having thus laid its bet on the likely GOP nominee, Iowa's importance in the presidential nominating calendar would emerge more secure than ever.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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