The caucuses are a strange animal. They are, first and foremost, a ground operation. And they are expensive. Mail and television may persuade, but it takes troops and highly motivated (and often highly paid) organizers to move even those ideologically committed people off their couches in -20 degree weather to spend not 10 minutes in a voting booth, but hours attending caucuses and often several rounds of balloting that can go into the wee hours of the morning.
Through the years, the Iowa caucuses have produced several surprises, and tripped otherwise promising campaigns. They put Jimmy Carter on the map in 1976 and a nail in the coffin of Indiana Senator Birch Bayh. They left Reagan reeling and almost penniless in 1980, after he was defeated by George Bush 41. The VP was nearly derailed in 1988 after finishing third to Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. In 1996, Dole, expected to sail to an easy victory, was nearly derailed by Pat Buchanan, who went on to win in New Hampshire.
In 2000, John McCain did the unconventional. He skipped Iowa and concentrated on New Hampshire. McCain beat Iowa winner Bush in New Hampshire by 19 points and would have been the nominee had he not lost South Carolina and self-destructed.
In 2008, Romney gambled by going to Iowa, betting that he could overcome the late start of the more socially conservative Huckabee. He didn’t. And the scars Romney acquired had a lot to do with his subsequent loss to John McCain in New Hampshire, which nailed the coffin for Romney. Hillary Clinton also gambled by going to Iowa, blew through millions to finish third and never quite regained her footing. In hindsight, both Romney and Clinton would have been better off had they followed McCain’s Iowa non-play playbook.
Romney now faces a difficult decision. If he does Iowa, he is setting himself up for a challenge from his right. There is plenty of gun power for a Palin or a Huckabee or a Santorum or Bachman or even Pawlenty to use on Romney in Iowa—google Mitt on abortion, gun control, gay rights and you’ll find he’s been on both sides of issues near and dear to the hearts of Iowa’s socially conservative caucus goers. And that’s before they light into him on Romney care.
But what if…Palin and Huckabee opt to stay with Fox, and Santorum or Pawlenty fizzle early or Bachman self-immolates at a birther rally? Will Romney have missed the chance to score early outside his Northeastern turf?