The Republican presidential race actually begins Tuesday night. It is worth remembering that this is the first time we will hear from the voters—that everything up to this point, while presented as The Campaign, was actually a long, voter-less preseason consisting primarily of candidates, politicos, donors and reporters talking amongst themselves.
No one knows what these first voters will do. We do know that whatever they convey, however, it will depart significantly from The Campaign Narrative so far. The “front-runner” will definitely not be Herman Cain, for example, since he isn’t even running now that the real race is beginning. Last year’s conventional wisdom treated Cain like a huge contender—the press covered him more than any other candidate through all of November—while discounting “minor candidates” like Rick Santorum. Since the narrative and the hype have been such poor guides to this race, here are a couple points to help cut through the clutter when assessing the Iowa results.
The Expectations Game
Mitt Romney is expected to finish strong in Iowa: first or a close second. His advisers relentlessly played down expectations for the caucus, stressing that Romney did not campaign much on the ground. So if Romney wins, get ready to hear politicos and pundits proclaiming that he “beat expectations” and the race is basically over, given the momentum heading into New Hampshire.
Is that right? Well, Romney’s team has a point: It is hard to beat frontrunners that go on an early roll, and he did skip retail politicking in Iowa. Romney has done only thirty-three events in the state, while Ron Paul clocked over 100, and Santorum just did his 306th appearance.
It is absurd, however, to suggest that Romney is not campaigning hard to win Iowa. A pro-Romney PAC has spent about $4 million on ads there. More significantly, Romney’s own campaign leads the entire Republican field in direct contacts with likely caucus-goers: 31 percent say they have heard from the Romney campaign by phone or in-person, a notch above the 29 percent who have heard from Ron Paul’s famous machine, and double the 15 percent for Santorum’s campaign. With only five paid staff in the state, the Romney campaign probably achieved this voter saturation by contracting with out-of-state phone banks. (The campaign did not respond to questions on the topic.) Much of the political press has missed this data-point, buried in a recent ABC poll, but Romney appears to be running a real field operation. (You don’t usually beat Ron Paul’s army without one.) Romney’s finish in Iowa will reflect that field outreach, as well as Super PAC spending and the dividends from the ten million he spent wooing Iowans last cycle. If political framing was fair (or accurate), Romney would have the highest expectations of any candidate on Tuesday.