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By Stump Connolly

The most beguiling time in any presidential race comes at the beginning when you have to figure out when the campaign actually starts. Does the race begin with early fund-raising numbers showing the relative strength of the candidates? Do the early debates mark the beginning of the race or just set the stage for what follows? How important is Sen. Tom Harkin’s summer barbeque? Or the Iowa Straw Poll? Or all those telephone surveys of potential match-ups in a general election?

A good rule of thumb, simple but enduring, is that the race doesn’t really start until the first votes are cast. Somebody has to go first, and for the last 35 years, that somebody for better or worse has been Iowa.

Confused . . . and Expensive

Tuesday’s voting in the Iowa Republican caucuses showed that Iowa is as confused as the rest of us are about the state of the nation. There was no groundswell of Republicans beating a path to the caucuses, signaling Iowa’s widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama, as party leaders hoped. Out of the three million Iowa residents, only 122,000 attended––about 4,000 more Republicans than in 2008, but far short of the 150,000 party officials predicted or the 240,000 who attended the Democratic caucuses Obama won four years ago.

They came, they voted and they left with all the enthusiasm of people going down to the DMV to renew their driver’s license. After spending $3.2 million on TV ads, Mitt Romney received 30,015 votes––six less than he did four years earlier. Rick Santorum got 30,007, only eight fewer, with a bare bones expenditure of $120,000. Texas Gov. Rick Perry poured the most money into Iowa––nearly $6 million––and came away with 12,604 votes, setting a new record for wasteful extravagance – $476 per vote – in primary balloting.

In the quest for Iowa’s 25 delegates to the Republican national convention in Tampa, Tuesday’s virtual dead heat finish means the top tier of Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul will each will come away with 7 delegates––out of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination­­––and now the race moves on to New Hampshire where five major contenders will vie to slice up its 12 Republican delegate slots.

January in Des Moines

Forgive my skepticism, but when the winner of the Iowa Republican caucus can’t muster enough supporters in the whole state to fill Wrigley Field––average attendance: 37,000––I question why Iowa gets so much attention. And when pundits then go on to predict Romney will be unstoppable with back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, I have to wonder why we even let the other 98 percent of Americans vote.

And then I take a deep breath and remember: oh that’s just so the media has something to talk about. Just like every campaign needs a place to start, all the reporters and TV stations covering politics need some votes to hang their theories on. They need some numbers to plug into the Magic Wall whiteboard on the new Election Night set, some sound bites to underscore the new graphics open, some tangible evidence of an election in progress to keep the talking heads in their roundtable of talking heads talking . . . and, of course, some reason to get together with each other on the campaign trail again.

And what better time to do that every four years than January, in Des Moines?

Glimpses Into What’s Ahead

It’s no knock on the people of Iowa to say the Iowa caucuses are overrated. As any reporter will attest, Iowans are among the nicest voters in the land: solid, upstanding citizens who, if they take the time to attend the caucuses, tend to take the responsibility seriously. They may not pick a winner every time. (Only George W. Bush, among Republicans, has won both the caucuses and the presidency.) But they do lay down some out of bounds markers for the race. This year, thank you, Iowa, that put the unhinged musings of Michelle Bachmann and sanctimonious stumbling of Rick Perry over the line.

One of the reasons Iowa is not a great predictor of Republican nominees, however, is that the Republican electorate here lies far to the right of much of the party. At this year’s caucuses, 58 percent of the attendees were evangelical Christians (compared to 37 percent of Republicans nationwide); 82 percent identified themselves as conservative or very conservative (versus 64 percent nationwide); and 65 percent said they support the Tea Party (versus 48 percent nationwide). To curry their favor, all of the candidates (with the exception of Jon Huntsman, who stayed out of the race) were driven to take right wing social positions on abortion, gay rights, and prayer in the schools.  They were drawn into the rhetoric of freedom vs. socialism in stump speeches that did little to address the hard issues of debt and economic stability, and went out of their way to avoid appearing like a “moderate” when, in fact, that’s how most independent voters would characterize themselves. Positions taken in Iowa will be hard to walk back when the electorate widens out to include a more diverse pool of voters.

A Changing Media Landscape

More telling than how the candidates are lining up after Iowa, however,  is how the media covering the race has changed. Since the advent of the Internet, the ranks of what are considered political reporters have grow exponentially. Four years ago, bloggers and talk radio hosts flooded party officials with requests for credentials. This year, anyone with a cheap video camera wants the same access.  All three cable news networks seem determined to flood the zone with camera crews. Broadcast news operations embed camera-wielding, laptop toting interns with campaigns for months at a time. And print reporters who used to bury their heads in their laptops to meet city desk deadlines now answer to digital editors who demand constant updates by iPhone to feed their blogs and twitter accounts. Four years ago, Politico, The Huffington Post and Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo were experiments in online political journalism still in their infancy. Today, they and a half dozen other political web sites spread a multipoint net of political commentary over the whole process that has become as important as the race itself.

Twitter Rules

This year’s political tool of choice for reporters and political campaigns alike is Twitter. It’s where campaigns disseminate schedules and news releases, where stories are leaked, rebuttals are launched, spinners do their spin, and reporters post their snarky comments about real time events they are covering. All at lightning speed. On more than one occasion this year, I’ve seen a blogger post a link to an embarrassing old video on Twitter, a reporter share it with the candidate, and the candidate issue his response––all inside of an hour. I’ve also watched one reporter’s funny one-liner zip across the Twittersphere and draw 50,000 laughs only moments later.

Twitter’s pervasive reach into the poli-sphere speeds along the transfer of political information to a wider circle of insiders (and outsiders), and thus increase the pace of campaigning. The rapid rise and fall of various non-Romney alternatives (Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich) and Santorum’s last minute surge can in some ways be attributed to this new phenomenon. There’s no reason to think in the months to come that it won’t lead to more sudden twists and turns in the campaigns, the speed of which and impact will be magnified by Twitter’s ubiquitous use.

Money Unleashed

The Iowa caucuses also gave us a first look at how the Citizens United vs. FEC decision by the Supreme Court lifting campaign finance restrictions on independent political committees will play out in the coming year. There are now 240 of these so-called SuperPACs––all free to raise and spend unlimited amounts of dollars on political causes, so long as they do not “coordinate” their efforts with the candidate himself.

In Iowa, the SuperPAC supporting Mitt Romney was called “Restore Our Future” and it played a pivotal role in the outcome. In early December, after Herman Cain’s departure from the race, Newt Gingrich was surging to the front of the Republican pack. That’s when “Restore Our Future” stepped forward to buy $1.7 million of airtime on Iowa television attacking Gingrich. Along with a $1 million buy from the Ron Paul campaign, the ads eviscerated Gingrich by pointing out all the baggage he carried over from his days as House Speaker. Three weeks after they started, Gingrich’s ratings in the polls dropped 19 percent and he limped home Tuesday a distant fourth.

For his part, Romney told Fox News  that he can’t control the independent committee or even communicate with it. But, as the New York Times reported, “Restore Our Future” doesn’t need to talk with Romney to know what he’s thinking. It is run by Romney’s 2008 political director Carl Forti, his former chief counsel Charles R. Spies, and Larry McCarthy, an alumnus of Romney’s political media team best known for making The Willie Horton ad; and it’s chief fund-raiser is Steve Roche who, until this fall, led Romney’s own finance team.

“Iowa is ground zero of what we can expect in every competitive state for the rest of the presidential election,” Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks outside money in politics, told the Times. As proof, media outlets have already tracked major new outlays by “Restore Our Future” in Florida and South Carolina, the next two primary states after New Hampshire.  A SuperPAC sympathetic to Gingrich – “Winning Our Future” – went up with an ad attacking Romney in New Hampshire Wednesday. And another SuperPAC close to Santorum – “The Red, White and Blue Fund”–– is raising money to go on the air in South Carolina next week.

Iowa has done its small part in getting the 2012 presidential race launched, but the field is hardly set in stone and it looks like a wild ride ahead. What we know after Iowa is that there’s more than just the candidates and their campaigns to look out for this time around. There’s the independent SuperPAC, the media in all its new incarnations and, oh yeah, the state of the country as it lurches, twists, hangs up, or pulls ahead into the future.

Now, we just have to ride it out and see what happens.


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