After all but boycotting Iowa for the past year, Mitt Romney has suddenly embraced the Hawkeye State as if all of his presidential hopes were riding on it.
And, ironically for him, they just might be.
With each successive poll showing the former Massachusetts governor leading a fractured pack of candidates in Iowa, Mr. Romney now faces sky-high expectations in Tuesday’s Republican caucuses. A failure to live up to them could undo his campaign.
If enough anybody-but-Romney voters unite behind a single candidate – with libertarian Ron Paul or social conservative Rick Santorum the most likely beneficiary – Mr. Romney could emerge from Iowa as fatally damaged as he was four years ago.
This is ironic because Mr. Romney has spent 2011 methodically trying to avoid the mistakes of 2007-08, when he staked his bid for the GOP nomination on a win in Iowa that would create the needed momentum to carry him past John McCain elsewhere.
But Iowa has a long history of unmaking would-be nominees in both parties. Underperforming expectations in the state that gets the first say in presidential elections can signal “game over” for even the most well-organized or deep-pocketed candidate.
To understand Iowa’s importance in the primary process, you must understand that a candidate does not need to win the state to win the nomination. He or she just needs to do as well as, or better than, expected there.
Having failed that test in 2008, Mr. Romney’s strategy this time involved never publicly making a play for Iowa, thereby lowering expectations. His absence was so glaring, it led the state’s GOP governor to warn: “Iowans don’t like to be ignored.”
It turns out Mr. Romney was not really ignoring Iowa, after all. While he kept his public appearances scarce, and opened an Iowa office only in early December, his well-oiled machine was conducting a stealth campaign to win the caucuses.
Instead of courting social conservatives – as Mr. Romney did in 2008 only to watch them line up behind Mike Huckabee – his operatives were on the ground twisting the arm of every farmer, small-business owner and small-town banker they could.
The low-key campaign appears to have paid dividends, allowing Mr. Romney to maximize his support among the state’s economic players in a way that spares him the task of answering, unconvincingly, to evangelical voters in the state.
Indeed, the campaign’s nearly exclusive emphasis on economic-management issues – playing up Mr. Romney’s experience turning around struggling companies and “saving” the Salt Lake City Olympics – is a better fit for both the candidate and the times.
It also helps that Mr. Huckabee is not running this time and that none of the social conservatives in the race can match his likeability. Mr. Santorum, the ex-Pennsylvania senator who has surged in the polls to become the designated torchbearer for Iowa’s evangelicals, is a humourless culture warrior with a penchant for wedge politics.
“For it to be a bad day for Gov. Romney, all of the anti-Romney voters would have to coalesce around a single candidate. And I don’t see that happening,” offered Chip Baltimore, a Romney supporter and GOP member of the Iowa legislature.
As a result, Mr. Romney could conceivably obtain the same score he did in 2008 – rallying the support of about 25 per cent of GOP caucus goers – and still finish in top spot due to vote-splitting among the other candidates.
Unusually mild temperature expected on Tuesday should work in Mr. Romney’s favour, since inclement weather on caucus night tends to keep GOP moderates at home. Social-conservative die-hards and libertarian Ron Paul supporters will brave any storm.
At risk of looking over-confident, Mr. Romney has already agreed to do the rounds of the major network morning shows on Wednesday, providing him with a platform to take a victory lap before heading into the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.
It is too early, and the polls too undependable, to conclude that Mr. Romney has Iowa in the bag. After all, his absence from the state for most of the campaign has alienated many Iowans, who have grown to expect direct contact with all of the candidates.
And Mr. Santorum, who has campaigned almost exclusively in Iowa and held events in all of the state’s 99 counties, has generated substantial goodwill among Republicans who appreciate his attention and authenticity.
“There is absolutely an anti-Romney sentiment among some voters,” noted Craig Robinson, founder and editor of The Iowa Republican, an online newspaper. “These are voters who reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour.”
Still, unless Mr. Santorum pulls off a miracle by Tuesday, Iowa is Mr. Romney’s to lose. Even he must appreciate the irony in that.