Mitt Romney made a trip to Iowa in October, and that in itself was news, for this was just the third time in 2011 that the Republican front-runner had set foot in the state whose caucuses quadrennially kick off the presidential-nomination contest. Romney’s absence has been duly (and irritatedly) noted by Iowan GOPers, who, like their opposite numbers on the Democratic side, have come to expect a grotesque degree of obeisanceand obsequiousness from their party’s wannabe nominees. At a town-hall meeting in Sioux City, one voter asked Romney if he now planned to spend more time courting caucusgoers—if, that is, the silly man had finally come to his senses. “I’m in Iowa,” Romney replied, displaying a GPS level of precision and acuity regarding his geolocation. “I will be here again and again, campaigning here … I’d love to win Iowa.”
To some observers, the accoutrement of Romney’s visit—including leaflets, with pictures of him cavorting at the Iowa State Fair, that called on Washington to practice fiscal prudence “just like we do in Des Moines”—suggested just that. But there were other signs to the contrary: his rejection of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, ardently supported by the Christian conservatives who dominate the caucuses, in favor of “let[ting] the states create their own legislation with regard to life”; his repeated, and even more sacrilegious, statements opposing the extension of federal ethanol subsidies scheduled to expire in December.
These mixed signals are neither incidental nor accidental. They’re reflective of a deep ambivalence in Romneyworld about its approach to the Hawkeye State. All year long, the campaign has debated internally whether and how hard to compete in the caucuses. Every option carries both significant upsides and substantial risks. But now, with the voting in Iowa just two months away, decision time is here. The choice Romney makes in the days ahead may radically alter the dynamics and outcome of the race—and tell us something vital about the kind of candidate he has become.
The ambivalence toward Iowa on Team Romney is rooted in a history at once recent and terrifically traumatic. In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor spent more than $10 million on the caucuses, blanketing the airwaves with more than 8,000 ads and deploying an army of organizers—on the theory that if he could pull off a victory and then repeat the feat a few days later in New Hampshire, where he had led in the polls for much of 2007, he could effectively pocket the nomination before his rivals even knew what hit them.
But, of course, it was not to be. Instead, Romney was beaten—beaten bloody, beaten senseless—in Iowa by Mike Huckabee, who spent virtually nothing and yet still came away with a stunning nine-point triumph. The loss was humiliating for Romney; moreover, it was crippling. Limping into New Hampshire, he was soundly thumped there by John McCain, and that was pretty much all she wrote.
No surprise, then, that this time around the Romney campaign has pursued a dramatically different strategy in Iowa: a rigorous minimalism replacing the balls-out maximalism of four years ago. In addition to the paucity of in-person visits, Romney has aired no TV ads; declined to participate in the straw poll in August; failed to show up for another major Iowa event (the Faith & Freedom Coalition dinner) last month and will forgo yet another (the state GOP’s annual Ronald Reagan Dinner) this Friday; and employs just a skeleton staff of five (a senior strategist, a state director, and three field staffers). His campaign’s message to Iowa, in other words, hasn’t quite been “Drop dead,” but no one could remotely mistake it for “Let’s roll,” either.
Yet despite all this, Romney is running at or near the top of the field in Iowa. According to a CNN-Time poll conducted last week, he is in the lead with 24 percent, followed by Herman Cain with 21, Ron Paul with 12, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry with 10 each. And while other recent surveys have put him somewhere between seven and twelve points behind Cain, the strong suspicion among Republican operatives in the state is that the Hermanator’s support may well suffer the same fate as that of the supernovas—Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry—who preceded him atop the polls only to collapse later, especially after Cain’s incoherent waffling on abortion.
Thus is the situation in Iowa—apparently, potentially—presenting Romney with an unexpected and golden opportunity. With social conservatives split among a handful of candidates, including Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich as well as Perry and Bachmann, a last-minute burst of organizing and advertising might allow the national front-runner to steal a victory in the caucuses. And if he did, Romney would then be poised to execute the plan that tanked him in 2008: a one-two punch of wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is far ahead right now, that would probably amount to a knockout blow to Perry, the only candidate in the Republican bunch with the financial wherewithal to wage an extended national primary campaign.
There are three problems with this scenario, however. The first has to do with Romney’s support in Iowa. In 2008, he carried 25 percent of the caucus vote, a proportion nearly identical to the share he currently commands in the Iowa polls. Is this a hard ceiling for him? It may not be: An influx of new, secular, and economically minded caucusgoers might push his total higher. But it may be, and if it is, there is a chance that social conservatives might yet coalesce behind an alternative candidate, boosting him or her to roughly 30 percent of the vote and denying Romney his win.
Which brings us to the second problem: Perry. Although the Texas governor has seen his poll numbers plummet in Iowa—from a high of 29 percent in early September to a low of 6 percent in October—as he has elsewhere, Perry’s heartfelt and hard-core Evangelical convictions and his tea-party bona fides, combined with his campaign’s capacity to mount a full-bore organizing blitz on the ground and drop a metric ton of negative TV ads from the air, make him a significant threat to rebound in the state. And indeed, at the Faith & Freedom dinner, Perry clearly signaled his intent to play hard for the affections of the religious right. Taking swipes first at Romney, who in an earlier incarnation supported abortion rights, and then at Cain, Perry thundered, to loud applause, “Being pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience; it is a core conviction … It is a liberal canard to say ‘I am personally pro-life; but government should stay out of that decision.’ If that is your view, you are not pro-life, you are pro-having-your-cake-and-eating-it too.”
Then there is the third problem, which revolves around the metanarrative of the campaign. If Romney decides to go all-in in Iowa, the national story line will shift in a direction that the candidate and his team have successfully kept it from doing all year—making the caucuses, instead of New Hampshire, the first test of his strength, and making central the question of whether Romney can slay the demons of 2008. “Iowa will become all about Mitt the minute he gets in it,” says a Republican operative unaligned with any campaign. “This will tell us whether Mitt Romney has really matured. If he’s grown up into a guy who could be president, he won’t do it. I think Iowa is Lucy and the football for him.”
A number of Romney’s senior advisers are broadly sympathetic to this view. But others are increasingly tempted to take the plunge. Below the radar, Romney’s people in Iowa have labored long and mightily to maintain the network of activists and volunteers who were behind the governor in the last go-round. And with each passing day that the field remains fragmented and Perry remains unable to revivify himself, the lure of Iowa only grows for those in Romney’s Boston brain trust.
In the end, however, the decision won’t rest with them—it will fall to Mitt. For all of Romney’s supposed business acumen, in 2008 the hallmarks of his candidacy were vacillation, indecision, and a paralyzing brand of caution. Recalling the mortifying experience, more than one of his advisers from that campaign invoke a nickname that Romney picked up in the days when he was building Bain Capital: Sweaty Armpit Mitt. But in 2012, that version of Romney has been little in evidence. He has operated with a striking degree of calm, certitude, and discipline—staying focused on the economy, largely ignoring his Republican rivals and training his fire on Barack Obama, avoiding the frantic chase after shiny objects and the frazzled, defensive, and reactive tendencies that previously bedeviled him.
On one reading, to be sure, making a concerted, late-stage effort to take Iowa would be consistent with the new, non-sweaty-’pits Mitt. It would be bold. It would be decisive. It would be opportunistic, in the best sense of the word. But it would also introduce an unpredictable variable to a race in which virtually every constant so far has worked to Romney’s advantage. Is there really a new Romney? The answer remains unclear. But if there is, surely he’ll be able to recognize and resist a briar patch when he sees one—even if it happens to reside amid thousands of square miles of cornfields.