Last week, Mitt Romney deigned to pay a visit to Iowa, and the state’s political class gave thanks. Republican bigwigs there have been panicking that the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination would conclude that he didn’t need to play to win their little caucus in order to claim the big prize, but now it appears that Romney’s reconsidered: His campaign has finally opened a state headquarters in a former Blockbuster Video store in Des Moines, and many more campaign swings by Romney himself are still to come. The relief among Iowa politicos is almost palpable, as they take comfort in the belief that the 2012 Iowa Caucuses will be as they’ve been for the past four decades: relevant. But it’s a false comfort. That Romney could stay away for so long and still contend is just the latest blow to the myth that has preserved the place of Iowa (and New Hampshire right behind it) at the head of the campaign line.
Once upon a time, the way to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire was to essentially move there. (In 2008, Chris Dodd took this to an extreme, relocating his family to a Des Moines rental for two months.) The voters in these states, the thinking went, were too pure, too discerning, and too substantive to be swayed by 30-second ads and national cattle-call debates. It was only after getting up close and personal with the candidates in living rooms and church basements that Iowans and New Hampshirites would choose who deserved their votes. Thus, through these two thoroughly unrepresentative states, was the integrity of our presidential selection process preserved.
But that’s not the way it’s working this time around. The candidates who’ve spent the most time on the ground aren’t getting much return on their investments. Rick Santorum, who’s visited all 99 counties in Iowa, is polling in the single digits there. Jon Huntsman has made more than 100 appearances in New Hampshire yet is stuck below 10 percent. Meanwhile, it’s Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich—candidates who have eschewed stumping in Manchester and Des Moines for Fox News hits and their own Lincoln-Douglas–style debate in Texas—who have been pushing Romney the hardest in the early-state surveys.
Iowa and New Hampshire boosters will argue, not inaccurately, that their states still play an outsize role, still coming first as they do. But the justification for their statuses has been eroded. Iowa and New Hampshire pols have long boasted about their state’s exceptionalism—that somehow their citizens are uniquely capable of “mak[ing] independent judgments based on the character of the candidates to whom they have been personally exposed,” as New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner put it in his book Why New Hampshire? If the voters in the early states are now basing their judgments about the candidates on the same debate performances, cable-news interviews, and blog posts that voters everywhere else rely on, then that argument goes out the window. This year’s contests don’t have the same romance and folksy charm of years past, but that’s not how votes are won today. Not even in states that happen to go first.