The snow fences are up in Iowa and ready for an expected January onslaught. When political reporters and candidates think of Iowa snowfalls and subzero wind, they think of fine weather to start a presidential race.
Plenty of national political careers have been made or broken in Iowa's January caucuses. There 35 years ago a one-term governor from Georgia spoke at a dinner for the local county recorder, and in return received a free pizza, a movie pass, a coupon for a car wash-and a ticket to the White House. With his plainspoken, low-key style Jimmy Carter appealed to Iowa voters-as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee 32 years later, when he walked away with a Republican win then had to drop out of the running by March. But Iowa in 2008 also was good to a city-savvy, well-organized, one-term senator from Illinois, who won big in the caucuses and, despite a tough run against Hillary Clinton, never looked back.
What about Iowa in 2011? By this time four years ago, four Republican candidates had established federal presidential exploratory committees. Frontrunner Mitt Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, had visited Iowa 10 times by the mid-term elections in 2006, and in 2007 was already airing a batch of television ads in the state. In all, 16 candidates-eight Republicans and eight Democrats-would campaign in Iowa throughout 2007 for their party's nomination. They spent over $51 million that year on the caucuses. It's hard to imagine that sort of cash flow this year, given the economy and lack of organized headstart. And at this point pundits expect only one party to be vying for a nominee. That, also, could change.
Lacking formal candidacies, the Des Moines Register is keeping track of how many times potential candidates have visited the state in 2010:
• Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: 7
• Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: 7
• Former Sen. Rick Santorum: 4
• Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: 3
• U.S. Rep. Ron Paul: 3
• Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: 2
• Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: 2
• Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: 2
• U.S. Rep. Mike Pence: 1
Another measurement of presidential interest is which of these prospective candidates contributed to Iowa candidates in 2010 mid-term elections via their own or other political action committees:
• Gingrich: $107,000
• Pawlenty: $90,000
• Romney: $70,000
• Santorum: $45,000
• Palin: $15,000
• Huckabee: $15,000
• Barbour: helped raise $2 million in contributions to winning candidate for governor Terry Branstad
• Pence: $1,000 to attorney general candidate Brenna Findley
• The Register also cites South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as potentials for next year's Iowa caucuses but neither Midwesterner has visited the state. Thune did contribute $2,500 to Branstad's campaign.
Adding to the uncertainty of what already should be a campaign season is the uncertainty of the calendar. Last August the rules committees of the RNC and DNC devised a joint plan to delay the start of the 2012 primary season. Under it Iowa caucuses won't be held until Feb. 6 (in 2008 they were held on Jan. 3) followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 14, then the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses. March 1 becomes the new Super Tuesday, with another cluster of state primaries on April 5.
But state parties-and state legislatures-must formally agree to the national parties' plan. Those deliberations will begin this month, and the gains that Republicans made in state legislatures, starting with Iowa, where a Republican beat an incumbent Democratic governor and Republicans took over one house of the General Assembly, could make a difference in how the 2012 election season unfolds. In a season with so many uncertainties, unknown candidates are likely to emerge as well.
Email Mindy Belz