Why Iowans Can't Make Up Their Minds

The extreme volatility in the 2012 race in the lead-off state appears to have been related to the low level of direct voter contact here before the last minute.

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ATLANTIC, Iowa -- The media scrum inside the Family Table Restaurant was a thing to behold. Judy Woodruff. Al Hunt. Mike Allen. Jessica Yellin. Dan Balz.

Romney stood at counter-level and delivered an abbreviated version of his stump speech to the smattering of Iowans visible drinking sodas and sitting at tables, before plunging into the ocean of press and quickly being swallowed by a ring of videocameras as he made his way to the next room.

His wife, Ann Romney, wearing a red suit jacket and gray pearls, pressed herself up against a wall, out of the path of reporters who stampeded after the candidate in hopes of a fresh remark.

"I don't think you can get used to it," Ann Romney said of the scrum, as she looked out across where her husband had disappeared. "It's a bit of a crush."

With the former Massachusetts governor finally topping the polls in Iowa and in the lead in Saturday's Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, considered the most definitive of all the polls in advance of the Tuesday caucuses, the media turned out to see the front-runner. But the crush hasn't just been like this for Romney, and wasn't all post-Register poll. In Ames Friday, Santorum was mobbed by reporters at an appearance at Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the Iowa State Cyclones play in the Pinstripe Bowl. Meanwhile, the politically apathetic young men and women getting drunk and watching the game before he arrived had no idea who he was -- "We're here for the game, I can't even lie," said Sarah Smith, 31, of Des Moines. "I don't know anything about him" -- their presence little more than an Iowa backdrop for a photo-op of the former Pennsylvania senator eating wings and talking to reporters and his own kids. Newt Gingrich's tears at a Friday morning event at Java Joe's in downtown Des Moines were broadcast on C-SPAN; reporters not packing into the audience of Iowa moms hosting the chat waited patiently for the doors to reopen post-event-taping to catch him during a book signing. Ron Paul held a large Monday rally at the downtown Marriott in Des Moines, where several hundred members of the press are staying, and where the bar at night comes alive with reporters chasing their deadlines with something to deaden the edge on their fatigue.

There's reaching voters, and then there's the theater of campaigning for the cameras when everyone is watching, spinning the message forward into the ether until it slips through one of the many electronic windows voters hold open to the world.

"He does love getting out and shaking hands," Craig Romney, the candidate's youngest son, said while standing in the kitchen of the Family Table looking at the ring of boom mics and cameras that marked the spot where his father presumably was. "Reporters make it a little more difficult to do that."

At a press availability afterwards, more than 72 reporters and 10 video cameras crammed into a single room. Down in front! Arose the cry from the cameramen and women. "I'm not getting on my knees for a Republican," grumbled one journo before complying. Dozens of reporters crouched and kneeled and perched on chairs in their bulky winter jackets, diligently recording Romney's extremely mild critique of surging former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

There's no getting around the fact that ratio of members of the press to potential voters at candidate appearances this cycle has been out of balance. The crowds have been smaller than in past cycles, for a variety of reasons: this is the second caucus in a row to take place right after a New Year's holiday, the deadest of dead times of the year; the overall less than compelling field has not compelled people to events; and, most critically, the breakdown in the culture of competitive Iowa campaigning means candidates have been hastily throwing together events of a size and complexity that in previous cycles would have been typical of summer and early fall visits. "There's a lot of coffeeshop talk but when it comes to meeting candidates, not so much," said State Senator Joni Ernst, a Romney backer in Atlantic. There are fewer yard signs, too.

In Davenport, Iowa, more than 100 (mainly middle-aged men in short coats) gathered on a brisk holiday morning Monday the day before the caucuses for a return appearance in the town where Romney had held his largest recent gathering at a boutique hotel less than a week ago. "This was not on the schedule five days ago," said the man who'd introduced Romney the other time, Steve Garrison of Burlington, 40. Beyond Romney, for whom he will caucus, the only other candidate Garrison had seen was Santorum. Potential caucus-goers have historically been able to rely on a first-hand assessment of the candidates, but that's not been the case this year. "Iowans, quite frankly, have gotten spoiled in the last couple of decades," he acknowledged.

A lot of candidate visits just didn't happen this year. The cycle got a late start and was heavily debate-driven. Some candidates stayed away from Iowa until the last minute, or else never had a strong campaign in any state. What this has meant on the ground is that a lot of potential voters who in previous cycles might have already met the candidates several times or at least once each were into the final weekend of pre-caucuses campaigning and just finally getting a chance to meet one of them for the first time. "I am one of the 41 percent that still hasn't decided," said Sheryl Schultz, 60, of Macedonia, Ia., in Atlantic, where she was going to see Romney for the first time less than three full days before needing to make a call. Asked if she'd seen him before, she said no: "I haven't seen him but I do watch....I watch a lot of news." Same with Santorum: "I just watched him on TV and I looked at him online."

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

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