On Saturday, a small percentage of the Republican electorate in Iowa flocked to the little town of Ames for an event with no real meaning but for which candidates have spent many millions of dollars. Only once in the last thirty years—George W. Bush in 1999—has the winner of the Ames Straw Poll gone on to win the Republican nomination and the White House.
Some candidates, such as John McCain in 2007, skipped the Iowa Caucus altogether because of its reputation as an Evangelical litmus test. McCain had also opposed the Ethanol Tax Credit during his career in the Senate which would have killed any chance he had in the Caucus. Mitt Romney is at least partially following this path due to the fact that his New England persona and Mormon religion do not necessarily play well in Iowa.
While the Straw Poll has very little substantive meaning, it did help to clarify and simplify the Republican primary race which can now be viewed in three tiers.
The top tier of candidates is now made up of Romney, Michelle Bachmann and, as of his entrance into the race on Saturday, Texas Governor Rick Perry. This is where the real action of the Republican primary will occur. Perry and Bachmann will now compete for the votes of the ultra-conservative, evangelical, Tea-Party types while Romney will seek to portray himself as the businessman with a plan to fix the economy and a mainstream electability.
The second tier of candidates will now look to either increase their exposure in Iowa, working towards the Caucus in February, or focus their attention on New Hampshire and South Carolina. In reality, these candidates—Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman—have little chance of making much headway in the primary, although some, such as Jon Stewart, believe Paul should be getting more press. Huntsman, due to his strategy from the beginning of focusing on New Hampshire and South Carolina plus his financial backing has the greatest chance of becoming a spoiler but that chance is still slim.
Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Thaddeus McCotter round out the Republican candidates as the third-tier. With little support and limited funds, these candidates will likely remain in the race through the Iowa Caucus in order to “get their message out” but with little chance of making any electoral headway.
So what does this mean for the Republican Party and for the country? With Bachmann and Perry jockeying for position as the Conservative thoroughbreds, the chances of unseating President Obama become slimmer and slimmer. The majority of Republican Primary voters may agree wholeheartedly with the small-government, deregulatory, social conservatism of Perry and Bachmann but the majority of the American people do not—at least not to that extent.
The further these candidates move to the right, the more difficult it will become for them to pivot naturally to the center in the general election making a general election victory all the more difficult.
There is still a long way to go before the general election and circumstances can change drastically. The economy and job market will be the major factor that decides the election of 2012 and Republican would do well to remember that. A candidate’s perspective on the role and size of government or on abortion and gay rights can be important in a Republican Primary but will be dwarfed in the general election by the issue of jobs.
The Straw Poll is over and there are now six months before the actual Iowa Caucus. Anything can happen—maybe if we’re lucky Jon Huntsman can get a little more traction—but more likely the first tier candidates will continue in their barrage of Conservative talking points and anti-Obama rhetoric all the way to the Republican Convention in August.