Every time there's a presidential nomination up for grabs and the caucuses loom large in the selection process, there are critics who say no one should pay much attention. The latest round of complaining is now under way.
"When the rest of the country is focusing on the economy, will Republicans in other states take their lead from the outcome of an eccentric process that has been dominated by social conservatives?" asked the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty in a recent analysis of Iowa's influence. "And as the GOP looks to defeat an African American president who mobilized record numbers of young and minority voters four years ago, how relevant are the preferences of 200,000 or so caucus-goers in a rural state that is overwhelmingly white and significantly older than average?"
"It's undemocratic," wrote the New York Times' David Leonhardt, bemoaning the outsized clout of Iowa and New Hampshire. "It is unfair to voters in the other 48 states." Leonhardt's concerns are the same as most of the critics: Iowa's caucus-goers are too white, too old, too well-off and too small-town to play such a large role in the process.
Well, they were just as white, old and small-town four years ago when Iowa played a significant role in starting Sen. Barack Obama on his way to the Democratic nomination. Where were the complaints that the caucuses' verdict was undemocratic?
Now, with the next contest among Republicans, local political insiders are already tired of the complaining. "I don't know where to start," says Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, which will run both the Ames Straw Poll and the GOP caucuses next Feb. 6. "The role that Iowa and New Hampshire play in the process is very important. It forces anyone who wants to be our nominee for president to actually look voters in the eye and give those voters an opportunity to ask tough questions. It tests the mettle of anyone who wants to be our nominee."
For the GOP, Iowa will be a two-test process. First will come the straw poll, to be held Aug. 13, and then will come the caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6, 2012. Some candidates will compete in both, while some will skip both and hope for the best.
There's no doubt the straw poll can be a circus. But it's the first glimpse the public gets of how the campaigns are actually doing. "What it really helps the candidates do is test the organizations ahead of time to find out what their levels of support are, where their deficiencies are," says Strawn, "and I think any campaign manager or candidate would love to know in August 2011 where those weaknesses are, instead of caucus night 2012."
It's still not clear which GOP candidates will go all-out in Iowa. Tim Pawlenty certainly will, and Newt Gingrich has been in the state a lot. So has Herman Cain, who is attracting a lot of attention in Iowa as well as the rest of the Republican world. Michele Bachmann will announce her candidacy there. But Mitt Romney, currently a not-terribly-strong frontrunner, is a question mark. His handlers say he'll campaign hard in Iowa, but he has only been to the state once this year.
As for the noncandidate currently attracting the most attention in GOP land -- that would be Sarah Palin -- Strawn says he has seen no signs of a Palin organization. "All we have seen to date is a couple of rank-and-file activists who are traveling the state seemingly independent of Gov. Palin, organizing in case she runs. Beyond that, we haven't seen anything here on the ground." If Palin does choose to run, Strawn says, "She will have to do ... retail campaigning and really give Republicans a chance to ask her those tough questions. We'll see how she responds."
Palin and some Republican strategists believe it will be possible for a candidate to enter the race as late as fall and still win. "The field isn't set yet, not by a long shot," she told reporters recently. Strawn points to the heavy organizing job -- 1,800 precincts -- that confronts any Iowa candidate. Getting in late will be a big job. That's just part of the test that Iowa poses -- like it or not.