In presidential campaigns, we learn where candidates stand on the issues, but we also learn whether they have the attributes necessary for the office. (We've learned that Newt Gingrich has trouble with staff, for example.) One of the things a president must know is when to stand by his plan and when to adapt based on new information—and that includes knowing when to feed the media and when to ignore the pundits. For Mitt Romney, the Iowa caucuses are a test of these attributes.
Romney spent a lot of time and money in Iowa during the 2008 campaign. He came in second. This time, he says, he's going to run a lean campaign. Iowa GOP veterans read that to mean that Romney will try to do enough in the state to stay viable for future states where he's stronger but not risk time and resources that he can spend elsewhere. Focus too much on Iowa, and he'll raise expectations in Iowa, which would set up a repeat of what happened in 2008.
Thursday Romney put that plan into action. His campaign announced that he would not be participating in the Iowa straw poll in August. In the Iowa Republican political family this is the equivalent of saying you're not coming to Thanksgiving dinner. An informal vote, it is seen as an early test of a candidate's organizing skills. It builds hype for the caucuses and raises money for the party. Last time he ran, Romney said the straw poll was key to the campaign; now he says it's not. Already rival campaigns are offering this as another instance in which Romney changes his mind to suit the moment.
This Iowa slow roll strategy is based in part on the idea that Iowa voters are too socially conservative for Romney. That's why Mike Huckabee won in 2008. It's why Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson came in second in 1988. In 2010, these voters mobilized to defeat three judges from the state Supreme Court in retaliation for a 2009 ruling that legalized gay marriage.
But this might be a caricature that masks an electorate more favorable to Romney. The leadership test for Romney is whether he can accurately evaluate the opportunity in Iowa. Many of the experts in the state are biased: They all want him to participate, because it adds to the greater glory of the Iowa first-in-the-nation process, which they all want to maintain regardless of which candidate they support. The political press, both in Iowa and nationally, wants a race in as many places as possible. That might affect the number of stories that suggest Romney is making a mistake by not competing fully.
There are a lot of evangelical voters in Iowa. Sixty percent of those who participated in the last caucus in 2008 identified themselves that way. The longstanding question in Republican campaigns is just how many of those voters are going to make their final choice based on social issues. Republican strategists I talked to this week (the caveat from the previous paragraph applies) argue that the weak economy and Obama's vulnerability mean that social conservatives are in a transactional and not ideological mood. They are focused on a candidate who can address their concerns about jobs and the deficit and on someone who can defeat the incumbent. Those are the things Romney is running on.
Gov. Terry Branstad uses his recent campaign as proof that the state is more diverse than the caricature. "Social conservatives are concerned about [abortion] and marriage, but they're also concerned about fiscal responsibility. I ran against someone who was clearly identified as a militant on the social issues, and yet the people of Iowa voted for me. Evangelicals voted for me because they know that I am pro-life, but they also know that as governor I would focus on the things most important to the state."
Branstad's Republican opponent in 2010, Bob Vander Plaats, agrees. Social conservatives want to know a candidate shares their positions on key issues, says Vander Plaats, who supported Huckabee in Iowa in 2008. But "the main conversation they want to have is, 'Now let's talk about the economy and the size of government.' "
But even if Romney doesn't buy the idea that social conservatives are more available to him than they were last time around, there is the other big chunk of the electorate—for lack of a better term, we'll call them the nonsocial conservatives—that should be his for the taking. In 2008, Huckabee was able to capture the social conservative vote and let the other candidates—Romney, John McCain, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani—fight for the nonsocials. The situation is now reversed, with Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty all going making a play for the Huckabee constituency that leaves the rest open for Romney. The non-Huckabee vote in 2008 was about 54 percent of the vote.
The issue terrain in Iowa looks good for Romney, and the electorate is there for him. If Romney decides to participate more fully in Iowa, and does well there, that would set up a powerful one-two punch: The New Hampshire primary is just eight days later, and Romney has real strength there. But if he doesn't work hard enough and Pawlenty does well, that could cause problems for Romney outside of Iowa. If the Iowa caucus turns on economic issues, Pawlenty, who is working the state hard, can make the case that Barack Obama did in 2008: Iowa is a reflection of the rest of the country. Pawlenty can claim that the state evaluated his positions on the key issues of the day—not merely the parochial farm issues or narrow debates about values—and liked what he offered.
Evaluating the reality on the ground in Iowa is one task for Romney. He also has to figure out the irritatingly vague question of how the political press sees the race in Iowa. If the press decides it is a bellwether state full of deep significance, it will help the candidates that do well there. Or stories will start to appear about how Romney, as the frontrunner who beats Obama in the polls, should really be competing in the state.
Yet any president—any good citizen for that matter—needs to know when to ignore the political press. Whether it's right, wrong, or just overexcited, it shouldn't affect your strategy. It might be wise for Romney to ignore the pull of Iowa and keep his focus on the long game and other states. But it will be hard, because the donors who write large checks will be susceptible to the influence of the chatter.
Hillary Clinton also wrestled with how much to commit to Iowa, starting slow and then pouring it on in the end. That is what some people think Romney might try to do, deciding in the fall that he can swoop in. It didn't work for Hillary Clinton, but she faced a far more formidable field in the state. If Romney wants to go this route, he'll have to hope that his competitors don't improve while he's making up his mind.