He who surges last surges best. Newt Gingrich rose from the dead too soon -- or at least with too little money to protect himself on the cluttered airwaves of Iowa.
Three weeks before Republicans vote in the Jan. 3 caucuses there, Gingrich is being hammered by negative ads from rival campaigns and their supporters and he’s slipping badly. Nate Silver, the numbers wonder at the New York Times, gives Gingrich, the front-runner just weeks ago, only a 15 percent chance of winning Iowa.
Who is benefiting from Gingrich’s decline? First, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who is coming on strong at just the right moment. Second, any state not named Iowa.
We are forever indebted to the Hawkeye State for the Eskimo Pie (from Christian Nelson, in Onawa) and the largest butter sculpture in the world (at the state fair). But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s nothing representative about Iowa. Non-Hispanic whites make up 88.7 percent of the state’s 3 million citizens, compared with 63.7 percent of the country at large. Hispanics are 5 percent of Iowans, blacks 2.9 percent. Demographics aren’t the only anomaly. Unemployment in Iowa is less than 6 percent, the seventh-lowest rate in the nation.
A record 115,000 Republicans turned out to vote in the 2008 caucuses -- that’s right, less than 4 percent of Iowans makes a record. And since 1976, Iowans have picked the Republican nominee only three times.
Just a Fluke
The caucuses command outsized attention largely because of a fluke in 1976, when an unknown governor from Georgia ran a stealth campaign to claim victory in the Democratic caucuses. Jimmy Carter went on to become president. Prior to that, the caucuses were such nothing-burgers that they failed to merit a mention in either Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1972” or Timothy Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus.”
Paul’s late surge this year may help nudge Iowa back toward political obscurity. Giving the nod to a novelty candidate like Paul would further undermine Iowa’s already shaky claim to first-in-the-nation status.
Paul has many fine qualities as a candidate, which his furious supporters are quick to point out whenever the news media treats his campaign as a sideshow. In a year when voters crave authenticity, Paul exudes it. He eschewed earmarks before it was cool and, according to the Associated Press, as a practicing physician he rejected Medicaid payments, instead taking whatever a patient could afford, including a batch of fresh shrimp once in return for delivering a baby.
Yet Paul is seriously out of step with much of the Republican Party and most of the U.S. He has long championed the gold standard and lenient drug laws while opposing U.S. interventions abroad, the Federal Reserve and the income tax. A unique politician? Yes. The Republican nominee? Never.
Paul’s rise isn’t the only factor hastening Iowa’s irrelevance. Iowa’s stock in trade is retail politics, which enables voters to take the personal measure of a candidate in a way the hurried contests that follow don’t allow. Iowa’s diners used to be so crowded with candidates you could hardly muster a quiet cup of coffee without a glad-handing politician stopping by to curry favor.
Now candidates are too busy preparing for debates -- there have been 13 so far, along with numerous forums -- to court voters in the traditional ways, which most candidates don’t much like anyway. Last week in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was explaining his most recent stance on gay marriage to a tough-looking Vietnam veteran when he learned that the guy across the table was the vet’s husband. Candidates face no such awkward moments when they campaign inside a 30-second ad.
Republican activists in Iowa now fear that if Paul’s well-organized campaign prevails, Iowa’s preeminence in national politics will be in tatters. Complicating their worry is the fact that Paul’s boosters in Iowa include some of his closest competitors. After last week’s debate, Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, who is eager to see Gingrich cut down, all but ceded victory to Paul. Meanwhile, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, eager for an excuse if his boss falls short, emphasized that Paul’s supporters have been working single-mindedly toward an Iowa victory for years.
Paul’s followers -- many of them young and intensely devoted to Ayn Rand, others older and mysteriously devoted to Rand regardless -- are fired up. They’ll be out caucusing no matter how dark the night or cold the weather.
Gingrich’s troops, by contrast, are in danger of going AWOL. After more than a week as the target of unrelenting, and largely unanswered, attack ads, robo-calls and fliers, Gingrich is sinking fast in polls. This week, he called his opponents’ behavior “reprehensible.” (Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Paul are responsible for most of the negative barrage.) To stanch the bleeding, Gingrich is undertaking a 44-stop tour punctuated by daily town hall meetings via conference call.
For Romney, who has failed to rise much even as Gingrich falls, it’s tolerable to be beaten by Paul in Iowa provided Romney regroups to win the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10. Gingrich, too, will live to fight another day should Paul take Iowa. In other words, if Paul wins, everyone wins, because no one really loses. Except for Iowa, which has it coming.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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