The decline of the Iowa caucus

Originally posted at AMERICAblog Elections: The Right’s Field

Ari Melber has a very thoughtful piece at The Atlantic on the chances that the 2012 Republican presidential election could signal the end of the Iowa caucus as a major component of the primary process. Traditionally campaigns skipped Iowa at their own peril. But this cycle both Romney and Gingrich have functionally ignored the state until the end, relying on earned media coverage over traditional field organizing. Melber reports:

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.

The notion that Iowa caucus goers will make the decision to support candidates that they haven’t had a chance to meet and talk with is anathema to the mythology of the first in the nation caucus. Melber floats an idea which I think could have traction, namely that Iowa caucus-goers could still reward an underdog who spent significant time in the state, like Ron Paul.

I’d hazard that any Iowa Republicans who want to keep their state’s campaign mythology in tact should be very hesitant to reward campaigns which have functionally ignored the state. Only Iowa and New Hampshire voters get real attention from candidates during the presidential primary process. While there are obvious problems with having two lily white states play this role, this is also a role that is culturally embedded in the states’ self-identity. Having lived in New Hampshire during the 2000 primary and worked on a presidential campaign, traveling extensively through both states in 2007-2008, I’ve seen first hand how rigorous these citizens can be in their scrutiny of candidates. The idea that campaigns have finally evolved to the point where media coverage and TV ads can replace actual conversations between voters and candidates is troubling and sad. If they were getting replaced by dedicated voters in California or South Carolina, that’d be one thing. But they’re getting replaced by Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews. No matter how little you think of Iowa and New Hampshire’s historic lock on attention from presidential campaigns, you can’t think that Blitzer and Matthews is an improvement.

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