The eyeoniowa.com official countdown clock tells us that we’re 69 days away from the Iowa caucuses. The past two Republican candidates to win in Iowa did not go on to be the eventual nominees. In fact, since about the mid-70s, the caucuses have only predicted roughly half of the eventual GOP frontrunners in races that weren’t uncontested.
Do we really need to pay so much attention to what voters think in the Hawkeye State? Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, says at least the candidates should care.
“Iowa’s certainly the first proven ground for these candidates,” Rottinghaus says. “This is the first time we’re going to find official ballots cast and this is a good test of the campaign’s organizational skill. This is where you find proof that the campaigns can actually run a full-fledged presidential campaign.”
Rottinghaus says donors are paying attention and so are Democratic and Republican party elites. “If you can’t get past the threshold of Iowa, then they can sense that you’re not going to be able to go the long distance,” he says.
Iowa is fundamentally different from most of America: there are huge populations of farmers and a large number of evangelicals. Republicans tend to be more white, more conservative and more religious that the average American.
“This does though, give you a sense how important that constituency is to the Republican Party. But smart republicans hunt where the birds are,” he says. “You’ve got the candidates that are preordained in that kind of way to try and get those votes.”
Iowa Democrats tend to be much more moderate, urban and more pragmatic than Democrats elsewhere, Rottinghaus says. They go for the straight-up-the-middle traditional Democratic candidate. Rottinghaus says, even so, the state can still serve as a sort of barometer for what could happen come election time.
“What you also see here is some of the candidates are strategically avoiding Iowa, knowing they can’t win it,” he says. “It’s become such an odd arrangement and a strange type of caucus, candidates are choosing to simply opt out of it.”
The process is supposed to weed out lower-tier players and build up momentum for other candidates to get to the next level.
“It’s in some ways a test of the endurance of your campaign,” Rottinghaus says. “Candidates, although they may strategically avoid it in practice, do have to spend money and do have to spend time there because it has to look like they’re actually participating in the process. Although it may not be that they’re legitimately able to win. They certainly have to show there’s some elite level support and some notice about the quality of their campaign.”