Do you see a tiny dust cloud in the distance or hear a faint rumble? Soon, as predictable as the return of Swallows to Capistrano and Buzzards to Hinckley, a herd of stampeding elephants will return to Iowa, each hoping for a respectable first, second or third place finish in the Iowa caucuses come January or February, 2012. In fact, Mike Huckabee is already scheduled to speak in two weeks at a fundraiser for the Iowa Family Policy Center. I hear Newt Gingrich will beat him by showing up next week on his own book tour. Maybe each of them thinks coming in first place means showing up early and often in Iowa: if they want to be president.
The press and pundits who focus on the horserace, however, will miss the story. Iowans won’t be watching polls; they will be watching presidential candidates, up close and personal. And while the first few months of 2011 may not seem to matter (polls that early are virtually worthless!), unknown candidates must begin to build name recognition and a base of supporters or they will get left in the dust. Some candidates will be content to introduce themselves in the homes of early backers or shake hands with “the folk” in a Pizza Ranch restaurant. Perhaps Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty will start running radio commercials on the local talk stations.
By mid spring there will be televised debates and candidates will begin to get wider exposure. Candidates who have been governors, like Sarah Palin, will get peppered with questions on foreign policy, especially if terrorist attacks or civil unrest in a country important to this nation’s interests makes the news. Meanwhile, candidates who have been Senators such as Rick Santorum will need to ready themselves to defend complicated and nuanced voting records. In Iowa, that means proving they are true social conservatives.
Debates will bring out the personalities of the candidates. Humor might help, but it won’t overcome ignorance on the issues. A little flip-flopping will be accepted if it has a plausible explanation and doesn’t appear to be pandering. And while the citizens watch the politicians, the wisest politicians will watch their own mouths. What is said off-the-cuff at a fire station in Oelwein will soon end up in the Newton Daily News or may be brought up in a town hall meeting in Traer or a debate in Des Moines. People talk. People listen.
A Little Practical Advice
Obligatory trips to county fairs will be followed by the Iowa State Fair in August. Avoid flattery; but please recognize Iowa Sweet Corn as the best you ever ate, because it will be the best you ever ate. You should have firm positions on farm subsidies and ethanol regardless of which side you come down on. Choose sides. Pick a team and be loyal. We can spot a phony three cornfields and a skyscraper away.
No poll will matter prior to the one that is the most unscientific: The Ames Straw Poll held in August of 2011. Like it or hate it, be it unfair or not, this state-wide gathering of probable voters will likely winnow a few candidates from the prospect list and tell us who the top three or four candidates will be come Iowa GOP Caucus time, 2012. The others will be considered also-rans.
After Labor Day more people will start to focus on the campaign, although some voters will already be tired of seeing Ron Paul and all the other politicians on the news every night for 8 months. When 90% of all radio and television commercials are political advertisements, the ads will be tuned out, but the race will be on. At that point, candidates will have to scrape and scramble for every vote and polling will finally begin to matter. Ask Mike Huckabee. In July of 2007, he was at about 2% in the polls and trailed Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts by a country mile. But by December the former Arkansas Governor had caught up and passed Romney on caucus night going away.
A wise elephant never forgets.
(Dedicated to Eric “Bulldog” Deters of 700 WLW-Cincinnati who took my call last night and asked what was happening here in Iowa, the Caucus state. Since we can hear his witty and wise comments on WLW in the evening here in Iowa, I hope Eric will make Caffeinated Thoughts his 2012 Iowa Caucus News Headquarters.)