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Iowa 2012 GOP Presidential Power Rankings: Grasping at straws
With only a couple of weeks to go before several 2012 candidates face off in the Ames Straw Poll, the world is about to see who has best balanced the game of Hawkeye State momentum and expectations.
These opinions and predictions have been culled from our staff members, additional state political reporters, party activists, academics, elected officials, political consultants and other insiders. While unscientific, the ranks provide insights that cannot be garnered in traditional polling or from any one pundit as to a candidate’s organizational strength in Iowa.
Without further ado, for our ninth edition of Power Rankings (and our last in advance of the Ames Straw Poll), here’s how we think the 2012 caucuses would end if they were held tonight:
Michele Bachmann — As one of our panelists put it, the Congresswoman from Minnesota “is accelerating in popularity faster than Huck did four years ago.”
As the panelists noted in our last edition, Bachmann has the momentum. What remains to be seen is whether or not she can beat, or at least match, expectations during the straw poll.
“The story about her migraines is the first example of others from within her party taking a swipe in an attempt to slow her momentum. The GOP establishment, which has been well-documented in its attempt to secure other candidates for the 2012 race, has to be downright scared about her trajectory. But, there is a reason you don’t hear about her going out of way to recruit straw poll attendees: She already got a whole swarm of them.”
Much of the leaked information over the past two weeks that had the potential to stain or slow Bachmann’s rise to the top of the 2012 field wasn’t viewed favorably by our panelists and, more importantly, seems to have landed quite far from its mark.
“Low blows on ‘migraines’ and ‘menopause’ have backfired and her support is both growing and firming,” noted a panelist.
Another added, “Bachmann still has the buzz,” while pointing out that her ground work ethic in Iowa must be strained as she also tries to stay on top of her ongoing congressional duties and the high-profile national debate over the debt limit. “Missing votes would subject her to immediate criticism.”
Yet, several of our panelists see her better positioned to compete in a caucus contest than in the upcoming straw poll, which could spell trouble if Bachmann does not have a good showing in Ames.
“There are expectations for her to do well, and she has to come close to those levels of support. If she does not, portions of her base will begin to question their support in light of the general election, while national pundits will begin the ‘she-peaked-too-early” story lines.”
“If the Straw Poll were after Labor Day she might lap the field, but with the Straw Poll three weeks away she’s in danger of stubbing her toe there unless her campaign does a lot of things right. It will be interesting to see what happens to her prospects if indeed that happens. But for now there is little doubt she is setting the pace.”
“Her slight lead over Romney in the poll this period caused many to suggest that the straw poll and the caucuses are hers to lose. Of course, if she doesn’t win the straw poll it could substantially hurt her chances in the caucuses.”
Even if she meets expectations in Ames, however, things are not all smooth-sailing until caucus night.
“It’s passion that motivates activists to attend the caucus, and Bachmann is the candidate currently generating the most passion among the social conservatives that dominate caucus attendance. Her support is very fluid, however, as activists question whether she can actually defeat Barack Obama.”
Ron Paul — The Texas Congressman, who has made control of government spending a cornerstone, rises mostly on doubts that Bachmann could falter, but also in acknowledgment that he is most likely to get a boost from the upcoming straw poll.
“The ‘Revolution’ is growing. Congressman Paul’s commitment to drastically shrinking government makes him a magnet for the many Republicans who are increasingly convinced that the country is badly broken and institutional Republicans are part of the problem not part of the solution.”
Another panelist agrees and takes statement a step further. “Even caucus-goers who don’t have substantive differences with Bachmann are getting turned off by persistent negative press. If Rick Perry doesn’t get in the race, Paul stands to gain the most from a few Bachmann supporters jumping ship.”
But as 2008 Romney supporters know all too well, a great straw poll exit, which can to some extent be purchased, does not always translate to a caucus night victory, which is built more on true grassroots motivators.
Paul is “about to be in Straw Poll heaven. But this is Iowa, and he’ll need a statewide organization to really do well in the caucuses, which he won’t have and won’t do, respectively.”
“I definitely think Ron Paul can win the Straw Poll, because he’s got the most devoted following of any other candidate. Pawlenty has the best organization, and Bachmann the most supporters. But Paul has the most adamant supporters, and in a fluid situation that might be enough to sneak out a Straw Poll win. However, Paul has lost a chance to make significant inroads to Iowa’s massive Christian Conservative base, so I don’t believe he can win the Iowa Caucuses.”
“Paul has both passionate supporters and experienced organizers — but too many activists question whether he’d be effective against President Obama to put him in the top spot.”
“Paul started running ads in Iowa and he’s gotten some national attention given his positions on the debt ceiling. As before, however, Paul doesn’t really seem to be gaining any supporters. He supporters are loyal and will turnout, so he should be in the top five.”
Mitt Romney — The former Massachusetts governor was passed an olive branch over the weekend by the Iowa GOP State Central Committee when his campaign, which did not bid on space at the Ames Straw Poll, was still allowed to appear on the ballot. Since he has said he has no intention of directly competing in Iowa, the expectations are already low, but not non-existent.
In 2008 Romney swept the straw poll and placed second in the state on caucus night. That’s significant, and can’t be dithered out of the conversation when discussing his prospects in 2012. He has to perform — at least wind up in the top three from the Ames Straw Poll, or he will risk losing some of the supporters he’s been able to maintain since his earlier bid.”
“Aside from not putting much effort into Iowa so far, Romney seems to be keeping a generally low profile. The strategy may be to allow the other candidates to knock each other out (somewhat like how McCain ended up with the Republican nomination in 2008). It also keeps Romney from making early missteps. Either way, it may serve him relatively well for the time being, but it’s not likely to work all that well as the caucuses get closer.”
“As I have said all along, Romney has a locked-in, almost cult-like base of support that can’t be dissuaded no matter what. That percentage is somewhere in the 12-15%. However, like Paul he has a very low ceiling, and can’t do any better than the 25% he got here four years ago. However, if Perry and Palin are both in the race, Romney’s 2008 total might be enough to win the Iowa Caucuses in a balkanized field.”
“Mitt gets twenty percent. The aforesaid institutional Republicans love the guy. He looks the part and sounds the part and that’s enough for some. Mitt’s commitment to the liberal use of government to limit choices and coerce behavior is very attractive to Republicans who want something from government.”
Tim Pawlenty — Significantly slipping in our Power Rankings for this edition is the former Minnesota governor. Since March, Pawlenty has consistently appeared in our top three, mostly on the premise that he was surrounding himself with some of the best political staffers in the state and that he could only benefit from their expertise. The panelists, somewhat dismayed by lack of evidence of his campaign gaining traction, point the the straw poll as one of the last remaining hopes Pawlenty has for creating a real buzz.
“He continues to rank high due to work ethic and his impressive organizational staff. However, if he fails to win the straw poll, he’ll be forced to constantly answer questions about the viability of his campaign and that might sink him.”
“This week he stole ABC Sports footage to invoke a sports event universally associated with the word “miracle.” In July before a February caucus! He better believe in miracles! He’s not toast yet, but he’s in that stage where you know the slices should have popped up by now and you go look in the toaster to check that everything is alright.”
“There is a sense on the ground from most people I talk to that Bachmann’s campaign is behind in mobilizing for its candidate, but Pawlenty’s campaign is way ahead of their candidate. I can’t foresee a scenario where Tim Pawlenty wins the Iowa Caucuses, because if he way out-performs his polling data in the Straw Poll to win it, the conservative outcry for a rock star like Rick Perry or Sarah Palin will become deafening and Bachmann will definitely be weakened. Anything less than a victory in the Straw Poll and it’s difficult for Pawlenty to justify sticking around. He will definitely out-perform his meager polling on August 13th, the only question is to what extent.”
“Pawlenty had a so-so two weeks. He handled The Family Leader pledge well, but made a misstep with his initial comment on Bachmann’s migraines. He won a Dallas County straw poll by a huge margin (70% over Romney’s 17% and the rest less), but he’s also been downplaying his possible performance at the straw poll. Pawlenty still has the best organization and he does well in the many townhall events that he’s held. The straw poll will be an important test to see whether that good organization getting the results it needs to.”
And, finally, one panelist gives what might be the final word on Pawlenty’s Commander in Chief hopes: “Oh yeah, Tim Pawlenty is still in the race.”
Rick Perry — The Texas governor may not be a full-fledged candidate for 2012, but he ranks high enough interest among our panelists to place him at the bottom of our top five.
“He’s getting in and already has developed strong support as the ‘anti-Romney.’ While Rick could be the Fred Thompson of 2007, he could also be a Texas sized bull that horns Mitt back to Bain Capital.”
“Most seem to think that [Perry] will declare his candidacy, the only question is when. Perry’s name won’t appear on the straw poll ballot (Palin’s will also be excluded), but that might not stop people from writing in his name. If he actually declares before the straw poll, or seems about to, it could generate enough buzz to allow him to pull ahead of several other candidates.”
Perry’s slow start reminded some of our panelists of how former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee handled the 2008 contest, and several believe “there’s something to it.” Getting in the race a little later, after opponents have already roughed each other up, could have its merits, but there are also drawbacks in caucus states like Iowa where ground work and retail politics are essential. His team of unofficial merry men and women have set up a headquarters and have begun to beat the ground on his behalf, but only a candidate can come to Iowa and look caucus-goers in the eye.
“When Rick Perry gets into the race, he will immediately become a contender to finish first in Iowa. Social conservatives will be drawn to his unapologetic conservatism combined with a charisma that even his political enemies acknowledge. Michele Bachmann’s biggest vulnerability lies in the fact that many activists who are tentatively supporting her currently are questioning whether she can actually win the presidency. Those supporters will flock to Perry when he enters the race.”
In general, our Power Rankings thus far have shown that there are strong contenders for a caucus victory, but also that there is a restlessness among GOP activists in Iowa. In general we’ve seen the same three candidates — Bachmann, Pawlenty and Romney — floating in or close to the top three in edition after edition. But we’ve also seen a flow of candidate options that have waved up and down in the rankings.
The only way to understand it is to acknowledge that many Iowa Republicans aren’t 100 percent behind a certain candidate, and that they remain on the lookout for that one person who can fire up the base, do well in a general election contest against President Barack Obama, and appeal to the kitchen table issues at the fore-front of the American attention span.
“In many ways, this feels like 2008 all over again in that I don’t see my party ending up with a candidate due to a consensus of excitement or pride or confidence. I see us having this incredibly wide field that slugs it out through Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowans will pick the most social conservative candidate they can. Voters in the Granite State will lean toward fiscal candidates. The nation will once again get a candidate that isn’t enough of either to truly excite anyone.”
“When you go to an event being hosted by a social conservative group, you’ll hear the names of several of the more social conservative candidates. Go the next day to a 2nd Amendment event or a tea party function and you’ll hear the other names. But try to get any of those people to give you the name of the candidate they’ll be supporting come caucus night and they can’t do it. Minds aren’t made up here in Iowa — and nobody seems whole-heartedly pleased with the choices.”
“I don’t see Iowans running around with their dance cards filled, just trying to determine what order they will be in. What I do see are half-filled dance cards and a lot of hope for more dancing partners.”