After months of uncertainty, Mitt Romney has decided to roll the dice and go for a win in the Iowa caucus.
But the former governor is betting that he can triumph in the state without any significant support from social conservatives — normally a vital voting bloc — and is making no real effort to win them over.
The unorthodox strategy poses real risks. In 2008, Romney suffered a humiliating defeat in Iowa at the hands of former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) that proved fatal to his campaign. Huckabee’s support among social conservatives was crucial to his victory.
Romney’s decision this week to open a new, 6,000-square-foot headquarters in Des Moines sent a clear signal that he thinks this time will be different. The campaign is bolstering its ground game with additional volunteers and media buys, and Romney is scheduled to visit Iowa Wednesday and tour the new facility.
The flurry of activity, however, doesn’t include new outreach to social conservatives. Tellingly, Romney didn’t bother to show up last weekend to a major conservative forum in Des Moines that six of his rivals attended.
Bob Vander Plaats, a powerful conservative activist in the state and the key organizer of the Family Leader forum, said Romney’s snub was deliberate.
“Romney was the only one who stiffed us,” Vander Plaats told reporters. “I think that’s gone with his persona and how he’s treating Iowa.”
Steve Deace, a radio talk show host in the state, said social conservatives in Iowa are dead set against Romney as the Republican nominee.
“I would say ‘resistance’ is too mild a word. ‘Anathema’ might be more like it,” Deace told The Hill.
For conservatives, Romney’s no-shows at events like the Family Leader forum “only confirm their suspicions,” according to Deace.
“Last time around, Romney tried to snow these folks, and it didn’t work. This time, he prefers to run a campaign that makes them irrelevant,” he said.
Others argue that Romney’s problems with conservative voters can be overcome.
Social conservatives “are a big factor, but it’s only one portion of the votes,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa and the founder of influential website The Iowa Republican.com. “Mitt Romney is not competing with Rick Santorum for one single vote. Really, he’s not. Romney is much more of a business-type Republican.”
Romney “got 30,000 votes [in Iowa] four years ago,” said Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican strategist who helmed Huckabee’s campaign in 2008. “Now, as it happens, Huckabee got 40,000. But there is still a lot of support for someone like Romney, a lot of moderate support.”
Sweeping the centrist vote could prove vital, given that the field is a near-inversion of 2008.
Back then, Romney had to compete with several other candidates, most notably Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (Ariz.), and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, with considerable support among centrists. The split in the vote allowed Huckabee to triumph.
This time, conservatives in Iowa seem torn between several candidates, while Romney has the centrist niche to himself.
“I think the parallel here is 1980,” said David Yepsen, who covered eight presidential races at The Des Moines Register. “In 1980, the Republican field was chopped up among a lot of different conservatives, including [Ronald] Reagan. And George H.W. Bush, as a more moderate candidate, won with a plurality. I think Romney could win with a plurality.”
The question for Romney has always been whether making a serious push in Iowa, and coming up short a second time, would do any lasting damage to his candidacy.
But writing off the state as meaningless was always going to be a difficult sell for a candidate seen as the national front-runner. Whoever won the state in Romney’s absence would still gain momentum, strategists say, and pose a threat down the road.
“If he did not compete, he would most assuredly not win,” Yepsen said. “And if that were the case, someone would be coming out of Iowa with a head of steam, and he would have to fight them off in New Hampshire.”
On the other hand, Yepsen added, if Romney were to pull off a victory, “I think he starts to roll this thing up. He has momentum, media attention, money. If he wins here, money starts to dry up for the other candidates.”
Observers close to the ground also note that, despite Romney’s earlier public ambivalence, the remnants of his expansive 2008 campaign in Iowa remain. No other candidate for the GOP nomination, they say, has built a comparable grassroots operation.
“I’d rather have Romney’s organization than Newt Gingrich’s operation or even Rick Perry’s,” Robinson said. “The unwillingness of the competition to organize here has given Romney his opportunity. He should be behind the eight ball here, but Gingrich is just beginning to staff up.”
Iowa observers caution that there’s still weeks left until caucus day. Social conservatives have not coalesced behind a candidate, but there is still plenty of time for them to do so before Jan. 3.
Some think Texas Gov. Rick Perry could recover from his debate gaffe and rally Iowa’s conservative base. Others see a path to victory for Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who has taken some hits recently but still polls strongly.
Deace argues that an opportunity remains for “true blue” conservatives like former Sen. Santorum or Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (Minn.) to emerge from the pack.
If they do not, Deace argues, “Newt Gingrich will win the Iowa caucuses.”
On caucus night, Deace added, “People talk to each other. And [conservatives] are going to stand up and say, ‘We don’t want Romney coming out of this, so who’s next?’ Newt has done the best job of anyone recently of communicating the social conservative worldview.”