Mitt Romney may have never won the Iowa caucuses, but in both of his presidential runs, he did show establishment Republicans that success can be found in the state. Romney never even carried a third of Iowa’s 99 counties, but his focused effort in Iowa allowed him to rack up nearly 30,000 votes in each of his runs.
Romney’s previous runs should provide the more mainstream and moderate candidates in 2016 a road map in approaching what at times can be a difficult state. Yet surprisingly, neither Sen. Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie, nor Jeb Bush seem the least bit interesting in following Romney’s path when it comes to Iowa.
Even though Romney never actually won Iowa, it would be wrong to categorize everything he did in Iowa as a failure. When one looks at the results of the past two caucuses, you realize that the Romney campaign was efficient and focused when it came to Iowa. Those are two traits that are even more important this cycle as the race for the nomination has become more nationalized and the field of candidates is large and unruly.
In his 2008 race, Romney carried 24 counties and garnered 29,949 votes. Four years later, he only carried 16 counties but still garnered 29,839 total votes. Santorum was able to win six counties that Romney carried in 2008 and Congressman Rand Paul won seven counties that Romney won four years earlier, Romney picked up five new counties in 2012, three of which, Polk, Story, and Cerro Gordo, were some of the most populated.
Of the 13 counties that Romney had carried in 2008, but lost in 2012, only one, Woodbury County, is one that Romney actually contested. The rest were rural counties that Romney was able to travel to in 2008, but did not focus on in 2012.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if you take the counties Romney won in 2008 and 2012, you essentially have a road map to the parts of the state where moderate candidates like Romney would be wise to invest their time. In all, there are 30 counties that Romney was able to win. So, if you are Rubio, Christie, or Bush, it would seem to logical to follow Romney’s footsteps.
Surprisingly, the three candidates who are best positioned to pick up those caucus goers who once supported Romney have not made a point to campaign in those counties. Since the Iowa State Fair in August, Marco Rubio has made 26 campaign stops in these counties and has only visited 11 of the 30 counties. Christie made 18 campaign stops, but only has visited nine of the 30 counties that Romney has won in Iowa.
It’s even worse for Jeb Bush, the once frontrunner who everyone thought would follow Romney’s approach in Iowa since he hired some of the key components of Romney’s Iowa operation. Bush has visited just eight of the 30 counties and only done a dozen or so campaign stops.
Beyond the fact that these candidates have basically ignored some key territory that could help their performance in Iowa, it’s almost embarrassing to see where they have not campaigned. Rubio has done a better job of late of campaigning across the state, but perhaps it might be wise to spend a little more time in the western part of the metro. The running joke is that Rubio always campaigns in Ankeny, a growing northern suburb. But besides back-to-back appearances at Noah’s Events Center in West Des Moines which is barely inside Dallas County, Rubio hasn’t spent much time in what is a critical county for him.
Christie hasn’t made it to Dubuque since July and has yet to travel to Sioux City as a presidential candidate. He will make his first visit there next week. Bush hasn’t even been to Iowa since December 2nd, and while he returns next week to make stops in Johnson, Poweshiek, and Polk Counties, he hasn’t visited Pottawattamie, Story, or Woodbury counties in a long time.
Iowa gets a bad wrap because mainstream Republicans have struggled to win here in the caucuses. Instead of blaming Iowans for how they vote, perhaps we ought to be critical of the campaigns that these establishment candidates are running. The media is obsessed with stories about each campaign’s ground game in Iowa, yet they overlook the simple fact that its difficult to win over voters you have either never met or made little or no effort to go after.
The frustrating thing about all of this is that while it may be impossible for someone like Bush, Christie or Rubio to win Iowa, each of them could use a strong or surprising finish to increase their odds at winning in New Hampshire. Of course they will make appearances in Iowa over the last few weeks before the caucuses, but if you are a supporter of any of these campaigns, you should be embarrassed by the half-hearted effort each of them has made in Iowa.
The Washington D.C. pundits and the Republican donor class have spent the past six months contemplating how best they could prevent either Donald Trump or Texas Senator Ted Cruz from winning the Republican nomination. Instead of spewing their hate towards those they despise or digging deeper into their pockets to help fund efforts to derail Trump and Cruz, all it really ever requires was a little hard work and time on Iowa’s four-lane highways.
The result of the laziness of these campaigns can already been seen in the Iowa polls, and it will likely be more noticeable when you look at the results map on caucus night. Trump and Cruz are likely to win in areas where Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were not successful in the last two caucuses. The most important place to watch is eastern Iowa, an area that Romney always owned.
Trump has already shown some strength in southeast Iowa by holding impressive events in Burlington, Ottumwa, and Oskaloosa. Cruz’s strength is found in conservative northwest Iowa. As they both continue to campaign across the state, they are likely to only get stronger. Conventional wisdom is that Rubio is positioned to make this a three-person race. He will get his vote share, but he’s not going to be the surprise in Iowa.
The surprise is more likely to come out of the forgotten candidates like Sen. Rand Paul and his passionate young supporters. Paul has announced that he already has over 1000 precinct leaders in place. That’s problematic for a lot of campaigns, especially in eastern Iowa. The Paul campaign is well organized, and like Romney’s organization, it is efficient and focused on places they know they can perform well.
Mike Huckabee is campaigning everywhere in the final days of the caucus campaign and just completed traveling to all of Iowa’s 99 counties since he announced his candidacy, which is more impressive than counting all the visits you made when you were just thinking of running. Huckabee’s support is loyal and organized.
In going through the process of looking at who has campaigned where since the Iowa State Fair in these 30 counties, a surprising name continued to pop up. Carly Fiorina has campaigned in 15 of these counties, doing 24 campaign events. She’s done a better job of traveling the state than Rubio, Bush, and Christie.
The caucuses are all about retail politics and relationships. To do well, you have to make yourself assessable to voters. The establishment candidates have failed to figure that out.