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The Political Pulse

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Iowa: 7 Things You Need To Know

Today I wrote an article for CityAM about the Iowa caucus and Mitt Romney’s candidature. Here are some more expanded points about how tonight’s events work and how the situation seems likely to pan out from them.

1. You don’t need to be a Republican to vote, as long as you become one. True, only registered Republicans can vote, but you can have been a lifelong Democrat and switch your registration to the Republican on the night. It’s as simple as that. So if you wanted Barack Obama re-elected, you might decide to go along and caucus for a candidate, such as Newt Gingrich, who seems unlikely to perform well against the President in November. Few, I suspect, would be bothered.

2. Caucusing takes ages. You turn up on a cold winter’s evening (no postal ballots here) to your local sports hall, library or church, listen to speeches from each of the campaigns, then write the name of your preferred candidate on a scrap of paper. Once these are counted and announced, the process begins of electing members of the various county and state bodies that go on to actually choose the delegates. Essentially, those wanting to take part have to book out their entire evening – don’t think of it as a UK-style ‘voting on your way back from Tesco.’

3. This favours zealots. Due to the non-user-friendly nature of the process, caucus-goers must either be inspired or unhinged. It is for this very reason that the Obama campaign placed such emphasis on the state – that it could romance enough ‘hope-hope-change-change’ voters to brave the cold. On the Republican side, the mass throngs of organised evangelicals and hardline conservatives have dominated a process with such low turnout. It was exactly these voters who propelled former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee to his caucus win in 2008 – gained with 40,954 votes of the state’s 607,927 registered Republicans, or under 7% of those eligible to caucus. This is exactly why moderate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman explained his decision to skip the caucuses by declaring "they pick corn in Iowa, they pick Presidents in New Hampshire." The fact the state has only picked two eventual GOP nominees in a contested contest in the past 25 years backs up such assertions. All of this probably helps candidates with something different to say like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum or perhaps Rick Perry.

4. And the organised. If you can win with such small numbers, those running the most effective ground operation matters. Ron Paul’s army of young people, bussed in from out of state in a manner reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 victory, will certainly help with this. But Mitt Romney, who has had a team camped out here since around 2006, has a good handle on the lay of the land – his exceptionally well-funded and disciplined campaign have been frantically calling their core supporters, built up over years, wishing them ‘Happy New Year’ and politely reminding them of their caucus location. Rick Perry – and most certainly the shambolic Gingrich campaign – will have nothing to match it.

5. Mitt Romney wasn’t meant to win here. Since June, the not-Romney conservative has held a solid lead in Iowa, in its different incarnations: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. Each of these fell by the wayside either through implosion or, in the case of Gingrich, after relentless attack from Romney’s SuperPAC. The fact you need so few votes to win has meant the Bachmanns and Santorums of this world targeted their limited resources at the state, leaving Mr Romney free to work on the other 49. Should he win tonight, it will be because of the money he and his friends have spent, the professional organisation of his campaign, and – above all else – by default.

6. A win for Rick Santorum or Ron Paul helps Romney. Rick Santorum, a former Senator who lost his seat by 16 points in 2006, who is so far associated with the Christian Right that gay rights activist and sex columnist Dan Savage has successfully redefined his surname on Google (not for the faint of heart). Currently polling at 4% outside Iowa, he does not have the time, money or organisation to truly take on Mr Romney in a national contest. Similarly, Ron Paul’s libertarian appeal, though better managed than Mr Santorum’s efforts, has an obvious glass ceiling that any non-conservative candidate in this race would face. Newt Gingrich and even Rick Perry, both flawed but somehow credible Presidential candidates, would build on a win in Iowa to mount a formidable challenge to the Romney machine – indeed, Mr Gingrich is still theoretically tied with Romney in national polls. But such a situation now seems very very unlikely, with a win by Santorum or Paul giving Mr Romney a leading rival into the later primaries, following his near inevitable victory in New Hampshire, who he will find it exceptionally simple to beat.

7. Iowa doesn’t matter: Mitt Romney has probably won already. This media circus is all good fun, with so many amusing candidates helping to add to the soap opera appeal of the ‘contest’, but none of it really matters. The point of the early states is to give second tier candidates a chance of entering the top tier before the entire nation has a primary. But Romney’s lock on New Hampshire and the likelihood of his performing at least ‘well’ tonight make his position secure. We will, in all likelihood, be left with a race with only one serious candidate. Saving a miracle for Mssrs Perry and Gingrich tonight, Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate to take on Obama, and the vulnerability of the President to his moderate businesslike message will be the real story.