As caucus season approaches, polls continue to change

David Bartholomew

Every four years, while many normal Iowans may be going out to dinner to their favorite local restaurant or getting coffee at their hometown cafe, they may notice a change of atmosphere.

What is usually a quiet, family setting has turned into an aggressive meet-and-greet by Republican presidential candidates, complete with news cameras, reporters and, sometimes, a giant bus with their picture and an American flag on the side.

The only thing is, these high-level politicians are not there to bask in all that is Iowa; they are there to get people’s votes. That is because the Iowa Republican caucus is only two months away and the race to first place in Iowa is in full swing.

“The Iowa caucus is important because it gives [Iowa] a strong say in the political process,” said political science professor David Peterson. “Candidates who do poorly tend to be weeded out [in the caucus] … and it is also a boom to our state economically.”

The Iowa caucus is an electoral event held every four years in which supporters of both parties will go to their local precincts to vote for their favorite presidential candidates.

Usually held in a local school or some other meeting place, the local precincts will vote for their presidential favorites through either a paper vote or by simply raising their hands and then electing delegates to county conventions, which in turn elect delegates to attend the state convention where the state’s presidential selection will be made and then sent to the party’s national convention where the candidate with the most delegates will be the party’s presidential nominee.

All of these candidates come here even though Iowa does not represent a large number of delegates at the national convention. Iowa has an established tradition of being the first-in-the-nation caucus, and the winner of the Iowa caucus tends to have more momentum going into larger states later in the nomination process.

This year, because of many other state Republican Parties moving up their caucus and primary dates, Iowa was forced to move its caucus date to Jan. 3, 2012, the earliest date ever set.

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics, explained why Iowa is such a notable caucus state.

“The first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa caucus ensures that most presidential candidates will spend time and money in the state campaigning for the Republican and/or Democratic Party nomination for president for many months in the year prior the actual event,” Bystrom said.

“The Iowa caucus is the first official test of presidential candidate strength and also brings a lot of national and international media attention to the state. Thus, Iowa enjoys political and media attention not accorded other states at this stage in the nomination process.”

Starting in 1976, Iowa was early in the caucus and primary season for both political parties and has kept that tradition alive since then. However, Iowa’s selection has not always been the determining factor in selecting the eventual presidential nominee.

In the 2008 Iowa Republican caucus, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa with 34 percent of the vote while the eventual Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, came in third with 13 percent. On the other hand, the previous four Iowa Republican caucuses going back to 1992 did select the candidate who eventually won the party’s nomination.

“In terms of demographics, Iowa does not represent the country as a whole,” Bystrom said. “The state is less diverse, and more rural, than most states, and social conservatives now play a more important role in Republican Party politics in Iowa than in many other states. However, on the average, Iowans care about the same issues that most U.S. citizens care about in a given presidential election year.”

This status of Iowa as a state whose Republican base is made up of a large amount of social conservatives may be an indication as to why perennial Republican frontrunner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has failed to successfully pull away from the rest of the candidates possibly due to uncertainties over his commitment to social conservatism and, to a lesser extent, his Mormon faith.

In the latest Iowa poll, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and radio personality Herman Cain has a slight lead over Romney with 23 percent compared to Romney’s 22 percent, with libertarian favorite Ron Paul in third place with 12 percent.

Despite an alleged sexual harassment scandal and a complete lack of experience, Cain has moved to the top of the polls in the last month and, surprisingly, has stayed there. Many pollsters have explained this phenomenon by pointing to the fact that many Republicans are looking for the “anti-Romney” candidate.

Early on, tea party favorite and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was at the top of the polls, then it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Now it is Cain, who many social conservatives see as a genuine candidate who won’t back down on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

However, many political experts still agree that the eventual candidate will be Romney because of the overall superior organization and fundraising abilities of his campaign and potential appeal to independents. But no one will really know until the final votes are cast on Jan. 3 at the Iowa caucus.

“I think Romney is likely to win the nomination,” Peterson said. “He is going to be there a while, he has money, support and endorsements … and what voters are thinking right now is not always a good indication of what’s going to happen in January or February. As candidates drop out, Romney’s numbers will go up.”

For Cain, Peterson had a very different prediction about his chances in the caucus and the nomination process.

“I’m still unconvinced that Herman Cain ever thought he had a real chance at this,” Peterson said. “And with new allegations coming out, he’s in trouble.”

Even after this alleged scandal, Cain still remains at the top of the polls.