AMES, Iowa—It’s like the landscapers are mocking us. On Saturday morning, a substantial rump of the political press corps has flown into Des Moines and driven the 30 minutes up to Iowa State University. The FAMiLY Leader, a coalition of social conservatives, has booked a concert hall for an all-day schedule of speeches and prayers, adjacent to the site where the Iowa Republican Party usually holds its for-profit straw poll. The lawn that’s usually auctioned off to presidential candidates and occupied by gaudy tents and food trucks is being resodded. Of course it is—there are two years until the next straw poll.
And yet inside the concert hall, it’s already primary season. Rick Santorum, who’s been in the state for two days and already hit a party fundraiser and the state fair, fields questions from a dozen reporters who want him to commit to 2016. One asks him if he caught “lightning in a bottle” last time when he narrowly won the nonbinding precinct caucuses, and whether he now needs a new strategy and larger staff. “Three hundred and eighty town hall visits and 99 counties last time,” says Santorum, holding back an eye-roll. “I don’t know if that’s catching lightning in a bottle.”
A few steps away, Iowa Rep. Steve King walks through hypotheticals about the next Republican field. Does Rand Paul have the advantage? Should candidates be here already?
“It’s always important to be here early,” says King.
Jonathan Martin, the roving New York Times reporter, sets the time machine even further in the future—summer 2016, when the party will hold its convention. “Is it important that the next winner of the caucus be the nominee?” he asks.
“It’s still relatively early in the process,” says King. “What we do in Iowa is, we punch one, two, or maybe three tickets to New Hampshire.”
The focus on the 2016 presidential contest is completely ridiculous, and everybody knows it. After he followed Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul to a Des Moines summit of pastors in July, Yahoo News reporter Chris Moody joked that “running into other reporters in Iowa for presidential coverage in 2013 is like locking eyes with a church friend at a strip club.”
But this isn’t any earlier than usual, and it’s not really the media’s fault this time. The way social conservative see it, they’ve blown two consecutive primaries to a moderate candidate—one who’s gone on to lose the presidency. Iowa’s supposed to be the Thunderdome that boosts one of their own. In 2012, a majority (57 percent) of caucus-goers were evangelical Christians and a plurality (47 percent) considered themselves “very conservative.” They split their votes and gave the narrowest of mandates to Rick Santorum, and that was two weeks after the FAMiLY Leader endorsed him. What could have happened had the rest of the movement been quicker on the draw. Could they have avoided the distractions of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich?
They want to find out. That’s what’s driving the presidential talk around Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who arrived in his first elective office this past January. Jamie Johnson, who’d been Rick Santorum’s coalitions director in Iowa, tells me that Barack Obama “changed the game” in 2008 and proved that someone with just a little time in D.C. could win. “He was in for one year and he was already laying the groundwork.” This is why he’s switched from Santorum to Cruz, who doesn’t have “10 years of votes to apologize for.”
“Before, there was never a mixture of the limited government, fire-breathing prophet with a Christian conservative, moral-based guy,” says Johnson. “When the conservative base of the Republican Party has a David, to use a biblical analogy—when they have their David, it’s obvious who their David is—it doesn’t matter where the money is. Ted Cruz is the only guy who fits that bill. He’s the only one who can speak to the religious right, to the economic conservatives.”
The implication, although Johnson is being genteel about it, is that Santorum can’t. Santorum gets 20 minutes to address the 1,000-odd conservatives in Ames, who fill about half a room that recently saw tours from Bill Cosby and Shrek: The Musical. Santorum spends the time on dark lessons, with personal anecdotes, of how his movement keeps blowing it. He mourns how the 2012 Republican National Convention obsessed over Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe by giving floor time only to aggrieved business-owners.
“Not one time did we see someone from the factory floor walk out there and talk about working for the man or woman who built that business, and talk about how that helped them,” he says. “Not everybody in America is a type-A personality who’s going to spend 80 hours a week building their business.” Telling this alternate history lets Santorum’s audience imagine how somebody else—not naming names!—might have run in 2012.