It’s started early this time. Nobody in Iowa has cast a vote in the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses. It’s not even 2012. But the quadrennial calls for an end to Iowa’s first-in-the-country caucuses have begun.
The problem this year: Ron Paul might win. Less than two weeks before the voting on January 3, the libertarian is leading several polls of likely Iowa caucusgoers. For many commentators, this is taken as evidence that Iowa cannot be entrusted with its role as the state that kicks off presidential voting every four years.
That’s the problem this week, anyway. When Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll in August, that, too, was taken as evidence that Iowa voters were too unsophisticated to be trusted with voting. And when Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008 with 35 percent of the vote, the state was declared unrepresentative because it was home to a disproportionate number of conservative evangelicals.
Over the last several years, Iowa has been criticized, often by reporters from the East Coast, for being too white, too agrarian, too Christian, and now too libertarian. Is the alarm over Ron Paul perhaps a tiny bit insincere?
There’s no doubt that Paul is in many respects an unattractive candidate. He published newsletters with racist and anti-Semitic commentary and refuses to offer an explanation as to why. He seems open to several nutty conspiracy theories or at least friendly to others who believe them. His national security views are sometimes to the left of President Obama and require a denial of basic reality that makes them not just naïve but dangerous. And finally, he is not going to win the Republican nomination.
But is the problem Iowa? Or is the problem the Republican field?
An Iowa voter could look at his choices and see: (1) a former Obama administration official whose top strategist called Republicans “cranks”; (2) a former senator who lost his last race by 18 points and who has run largely on social issues in this time of economic uncertainty; (3) an inexperienced congresswoman from Minnesota with a tendency to misstate facts and a staff with higher turnover than a fast-food restaurant’s; (4) a former speaker of the House who praised Hillary Clinton on health care, worked with Nancy Pelosi on global warming, made $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, wants mirrors in space, and has demagogued Medicare reform from the left; (5) a big-state governor who doesn’t know the details of his own tax plan, who doesn’t know what government agencies he’s promised to cut, who claimed that those who disagree with him on immigration have no heart, and is best known for his many painfully awkward moments in debates; (6) a moderate former governor whose health care plan served as a model for Obamacare, who once called himself a “progressive” Republican not in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, who flip-flopped even on the question of whether he is a flip-flopper, and who largely ignored Iowa until he decided a few weeks ago that he had a chance to win there.
Uncharitable? Yes. Untrue? No.
If this is how you view your choices, a protest vote—even for Ron Paul—isn’t really so irrational. And in such a scenario, doesn’t the fact that Paul cannot win the Republican nomination argue in favor of such a protest vote, not against it?
Of course not all votes for Paul will be protests. So what explains his ability to increase his share of the vote from 10 percent in 2008 to, say, the 28 percent in an Iowa State poll of likely caucusgoers taken in mid-December? Issues and organization.
Consider some other findings of that poll. When voters were asked to pick the most important issue from a list of 12, 35 percent said “jobs and the economy,” 24 percent said “the size and role of the federal government,” and 21.5 percent said “national debt and the deficit.” Asked the most important quality they were seeking in a candidate, more voters answered “takes a strong stand” (32 percent) than anything else.
Is there a candidate in the race who has taken stronger stands than Paul? Who has focused more directly and consistently on those top three issues than Paul? How has Paul overcome his often-wacky, sometimes indefensible foreign policy views? In a state that historically has some strong noninterventionist tendencies, it doesn’t take much. And he’s had help from his rivals and Republicans in Washington. Republicans generally have downplayed the importance of the issues that would hurt Paul. Several candidates have echoed the (erroneous) claim from Admiral Mike Mullen that the greatest national security threat facing the country is debt. And congressional Republicans signed onto a plan that would automatically cut some $500 billion more from the defense budget than the $450 billion proposed by President Obama.
Furthermore, Paul has been building an organization in Iowa for more than four years. Newt Gingrich sent out a press release earlier this month touting the co-chairs he had recruited in 23 Iowa counties. Iowa has 99 counties. Paul’s campaign has been active, to some degree, in all of them. He finished second in the Ames straw poll thanks in part to this organization, and it’s a safe bet it’ll help him do well on January 3, partly by appealing to independents and even some Democrats willing to cross over and register as Republicans for the caucus. “Paul’s rise is contrary to the assertion that grassroots caucus organizing doesn’t matter,” says one Iowa Republican operative. “He is running the most traditional of caucus-organizing campaigns.”
Finally, if Ron Paul were to win the Iowa caucuses, he would likely do so with something like a quarter of the vote. He won’t be the nominee. But a quarter of Iowa caucus voters will have rewarded a traditional grassroots campaign and a message of aggressive free-market solutions to our problems, and will at the same time have chosen to send a message about the weakness of the rest of the field. If they do this, why couldn’t one say the Republicans of Iowa are doing their job?
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.