As soon as the polls close this year, the 2012 presidential campaign will begin in earnest. There has been remarkable GOP unity since Barack Obama’s election, but this will be difficult to maintain next year as Republicans join competing bandwagons of the presidential contenders. Similar to 2000 and 2008, Republicans are expected to divide themselves into economic, social and national security camps, with significant overlap in each category.
The first-in-the-nation Republican presidential precinct caucuses will be held in Iowa in February of 2012, and this gathering will once again be dominated by evangelical Christians. The religious right propelled Mike Huckabee to victory in 2008, Pat Buchanan came within 3% of upsetting Bob Dole in 1996, and Pat Robertson finished ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The good news for Republicans is that they were able to unify the party after the primaries. In 2008, the founder of Focus on the Family, Dr. James Dobson, said he would unequivocally withhold support from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) “as a matter of conscience.” Dobson organized an anti-McCain petition which was signed by over one million right wing Christians.
Dobson later backtracked on his vow and endorsed McCain after the Senator won the GOP nomination. The bad news is that in Iowa the major Christian organization has now proven it is capable of completely sitting out an election when their candidate does not win the primary.
The most recent Iowa victor was former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR). The results of the January 3, 2008 presidential precinct caucuses were Huckabee 34%, Mitt Romney 25%, Fred Thompson 13%, John McCain 13%, Ron Paul 10% and Rudy Guiliani 3%. As 2008 proved, Iowa conservatives reward candidates who spend significant time getting to know them. Huckabee won even though he had only 10% of Romney’s Iowa budget.
Huckabee made many trips to the state in 2005 and 2006 before catching fire late in 2007. Over 60% of GOP caucus-goers described themselves as evangelical Christians, and 46% of them picked Huckabee while only 19% went to Romney. Huckabee failed to gain significant momentum after Iowa and placed a disappointing third in New Hampshire, where he no longer had the support of a strong bloc of evangelical Christians.
Huckabee will be back in the state on November 21st of this year to keynote the annual dinner of the influential Iowa Family Policy Council (IFPC). His appearance is controversial because the conservative group refused to support this year’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Terry Branstad. The IFPC chairman, Danny Carroll, says his is not concerned with winning elections, and his organization only backs candidates who “wholeheartedly embrace Bible-based positions.”
Branstad is a social conservative and proved it during his four previous terms. Huckabee spent considerable time in Iowa earlier this year supporting his former campaign co-chairman, Bob Vander Plaats, who was unsuccessfully running against Branstad for the GOP nomination. Vander Plaats opposition to gay marriage received considerable publicity and he had the IFPC endorsement.
Huckabee would have an instant head start in Iowa because his HuckPAC organization has maintained his previous church based network. However, Huckabee has said he does not expect to be a 2012 candidate. Because of this, the Des Moines Register is not including his name in any polling. Nevertheless, last week The New York Times said: “If they had to guess today, some in the White House say Obama will find himself running against Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.”
Huckabee would have to abandon his lucrative deals with Fox News and ABC Radio to mount a presidential campaign, and insiders indicate Mrs. Huckabee is against another bid. He has switched his voting residence from Arkansas to Florida, which some interpret as another indication he is not running.
The former Governor would also be criticized for the lenient pardons he issued if he made another attempt at the White House. One pardon went to a felon who later killed four Washington State policemen.
The Iowa runner-up was former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA) and he is once again at the head of the GOP pack. Romney made a huge 2008 investment in Iowa with TV commercials, prominent advisers and paid staff, and had the lead in several straw polls. He came in a disappointing second when the so-called faith community settled on Huckabee as their candidate. Romney now realizes he could once again face opposition from the evangelicals.
A poll commissioned by The Iowa Republican in August 2010 had Huckabee at 22%, Romney 18%, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) 15%, Sarah Palin (AK) 11% and Rep. Ron Paul (TX) 5%. Romney has spent $41,500 in the state this year, and has made 38 Iowa endorsements. He gave $10,000 to Branstad’s campaign, and visited the state in April and October to campaign with Branstad. A final decision will not be made for many months, but because of the 2008 disappointment, it would not be a surprise if Romney decided to skip Iowa in 2012.
Romney’s Free and Strong America political action committee has raised $7.8 million this year. The former Massachusetts Governor did not have the support of GOP major donors last time. They were primarily in the McCain and Giuliani camps, but that is now changing. One of Romney’s biggest liabilities will be the government-run health care plan he implemented as Governor of Massachusetts.
Other potential candidates who have already visited Iowa are Governors Tim Pawlenty (MN) and Haley Barbour (MS), Sen. John Thune (SD), Rep. Mike Pence (IN), former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), and former UN Ambassador John Bolton. There is news media speculation regarding possible candidacies by Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN) and even New York City businessman Donald Trump.
The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll indicates 62% of Republicans have a favorable view of Romney, while Palin’s approval rating is 58% and Gingrich is at 56%. If past turnout is any guide, at least 75% of the 2012 Iowa caucus participants will be social conservatives. The major candidates now appear to be:
Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) has visited Iowa seven times this year, and has a full time staff member in the state. His Freedom First PAC has raised over $3 million and Pawlenty has already lined up some of the most talented staffers from the previous Bush and McCain campaigns. The Governor is leaving office after eight years and has burnished his foreign policy credentials with five trips to Iraq and three to Afghanistan.
Columnist George Will describes Pawlenty as “a Blue State governor with Red State appeal.” Minnesota is the only state that has voted Democratic in the last nine presidential elections. Pawlenty is also highly praised by Rush Limbaugh and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and John McCain came close to picking him as his 2008 running mate.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) has raised over $5 million and was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Iowa Republican Party in September. Palin’s speech about the need for party unity was well received in this state which has frequently witnessed divisive primaries.
This was her second visit to Iowa this year. Palin said she was willing to “give it a shot” in 2012, but also indicated she is far from making a decision regarding her future. Palin does not appear to have any Iowa organization, and she has done almost nothing to court the GOP’s major donors. Some see this as a sign see is not running, and a campaign would bring a halt to many of her lucrative money making ventures.
The former Governor is popular with social conservatives and could claim Huckabee’s evangelical mantle if he does not run. Palin surprised some observers by endorsing Branstad in this year’s primary because many of her Christian right followers were in the Vander Plaats camp.
Palin’s biggest obstacle is that while she could conceivably win a GOP nomination, a general election would be a significant hurdle. According to the CBS/New York Times poll, Palin has a dismal 21% national approval rating.
Dave Davidson writing in The Iowa Republican says “Palin is emensly popular in Iowa despite any mistakes she makes, whether authentic or blown out of proportion by the media. Palin has national momentum, why not cash that in for the opportunity to be the first female U.S. president. Its a political no-brainer!” Davidson is a past supporter of Huckabee, Vander Plaats and Ron Paul. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says Palin “may well be, in all honesty, the most formidable force in the Republican Party right now.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) is the leader in money distribution and has contributed over $100,000 to Iowa candidates this year. His various political groups raised more than $20 million in 2010. The former Speaker has made numerous trips to the state over the past decade to serve as a headliner at various GOP fundraising events.
He is a frequent guest on FOX News and has been running surprisingly strong in recent Iowa surveys. There are a number of potential skeleton’s in Gingrich’s closet which would emerge if he was regarded as a serious candidate. Another drawback is that he will be 69 years old in 2012, which is the same age as Ronald Reagan when he sought the nomination in 1980.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), the Chairman of the House Republican Caucus, has also been visiting Iowa. Pence holds the number three position in the House GOP leadership and is expected to move up after the November elections. The Indiana lawmaker received considerable national attention when he defeated Mike Huckabee in the recent presidential straw poll at the Value Voters Summit. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has not endorsed any candidate but appears to be helping Pence behind the scenes.
Pence is surprisingly critical of former President George W. Bush. He does not hesitate to criticize the GOP governor of his state (Mitch Daniels), and often says the GOP made major mistakes when they last had control of the House and Senate. Pence calls for the restoration of “public virtue,” and says moral issues can not take a back seat to the economic crisis:
To those who say we should focus on fiscal issues, instead of the right to life, I say ‘what is more fiscally responsible than rolling back this administration’s effort to expand funding for abortion at home and abroad?’ What is more fiscally responsible than denying any and all funding to Planned Parenthood of America? To those who say that marriage doesn’t matter, I say, ‘you would not be able to print enough money in 1,000 years to pay for the government you would need if the traditional family continues to collapse.’
Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN) has not been to Iowa since 2008, but former Gov. Terry Branstad (IA) is one of his biggest boosters. Branstad is expected to return to the Governor’s Mansion in January and his speeches frequently praise the reforms instituted by Daniels in Indiana.
Daniels is a former OMB Director during the Bush Administration and has an impressive track record of accomplishments to bring to any campaign. The Governor has said the GOP should be concentrating on economic issues this year, and that comment has already attracted criticism from social conservatives.
Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) is the very active Chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and will be able to claim credit for many victories this November. The RGA raised $31 million in the third quarter of 2010. Barbour also served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee when the GOP captured control of the House and Senate in 1994.
He can brag about eliminating deficits in Mississippi and one of his best assets is an impressive national donor network. The downside is that Barbour has already made enemies in Iowa.
Barbour told a 2009 Iowa Republican Party fundraiser that purity tests should be rejected. The Governor said: “There are tens of millions of pro-choice Republicans that are just as good Republicans as I am, and we need to support them.”
This instantly resulted in the vigorous opposition of Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s Republican National Committeeman, who was one of the authors of a candidate purity test. Scheffler is also president of both the Iowa Christian Alliance and the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. He says: “Barbour’s toast in Iowa, as far as I’m concerned. I traditionally stay out of the presidential precinct caucues, but this kind of information will be distributed far and wide.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) has already made eight trips to Iowa, and is clearly focusing on social conservatives. He has formed the Iowa Keystone Political Action Committee which spent $25,000 this year. Santorum, 58, wants to be the 2012 cultural warrior, and his current efforts are focused on members of the Iowa Family Policy Council (IFPC). Opposition to gay marriage is a focal point for the group, and Santorum says sanctioning homosexuality would lead to beastiality and bigamy.
Rep. Ron Paul (TX) surprised many observers in 2008. He was able to raise $36 million and received 10% of the Iowa vote. Paul has maintained his visibility and core Iowa support group over the past two years. If Paul does not run, the libertarian choice is expected to be former Gov. Gary Johnson (NM), who advocates legalizing marijuana.
Donald Trump says: “I can tell you this – for the first time in my life, I am absolutely thinking about it. I don’t know that I’ll do it. It’s probable that I won’t do it. But I can tell you, I’m thinking about it.” Trump was highly critical of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and supported Barack Obama in 2008. He is now highly critical of Obama and is a protectionist on trade issues. A Trump poll has already been commissioned in New Hampshire, but he has not visited Iowa.