I've always considered the Iowa caucus a speed bump on the road to picking a president—the place where televangelist Pat Robertson beat George H.W. Bush, and it was won last time by President Mike Huckabee. My suspicions were confirmed when I went out there in 2008 to follow a group of Tennessee legislators campaigning for Fred Thompson.
Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia went to Iowa and spent time there in 1976 and when he won the caucus he was an overnight sensation. In addition to all his other sins, Carter injected an anonymous collection of house parties out on the prairie into the national conversation. Political reporters discovered they could start the coverage of the presidential campaign early and they learned to love Des Moines. Hey, it was the heartland.
The caucus season begins with presidential candidates slavishly kissing the ring of Archer Daniels Midland and ethanol subsidies. Then the candidates buy voters tickets and feed them to get them to a barbecue/straw poll and the press treats it like it means something. You know, Michele Bachmann was the frontrunner after the Ames straw poll.
I went to three caucuses being held on a school campus. At each one, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson had a pretty good crowd of volunteers. Then the church buses arrived and hundreds of people marched in to vote for Huckabee. Not that their votes were any less important than people who drove to the caucus. But it is a lot easier for a church to get members to show up, board the church bus, and attend en masse. It is the kind of built-in free organization that gives social conservatives like Robertson and Huckabee and Pat Buchanan a decided advantage over other candidates. The number of people who participate in the caucuses is small in proportion to the state population so buses with a couple hundred supporters carry a lot of weight.
Since the caucus vote is the only early result, the press will acts like it matters. Unless they decide it doesn't. Sometimes it is the second-place finisher who won. Or the winner didn't win by enough, so he lost. Or he screamed on election night.
This time around we will discover if conventional wisdom in Iowa still holds. The mantra has always been that it's a test of organizational ability and grassroots campaigning. Recent polls have had Newt Gingrich leading in Iowa. He's hardly ever been there. He has no organization. If he wins or finishes second, there goes the conventional wisdom. But a barrage of negative ads are making his poll numbers melt, so conventional wisdom may again prevail.
Bachmann was supposed to win Iowa because she was born there. She won the early straw poll. Romney was bypassing Iowa to focus on New Hampshire. (No doubt he remembers spending a fortune there organizing in 2008 only to lose to the vastly underfunded Huckabee.)
Romney has now poured some money into Iowa and is playing there. If he doesn't win it will be a blow to his campaign. Bachmann may have an organization that puts her in the top tier.
If Ron Paul finishes second, or even wins, he will be written off as an anomaly because everyone else split the vote.
It is possible for Paul and Bachmann to lead and Romney could be third. Gingrich may continue to sink like a stone.
Will winning Iowa give someone momentum into the primaries? John McCain finished fourth in Iowa, and then won South Carolina.
New Hampshire takes pride in picking its own winner, rarely paying much attention to the farmers out on the prairie.
My point in all this is that the Iowa caucus has very little to do with who becomes president. It is a prelude to the real campaign and it entertains the press and political junkies. It is a place for candidates to practice a stump speech.
The results this time will not tell us anything about who will win the nomination, but we'll have wall to wall coverage anyway. I don't see any way we will ever relegate Iowa to the position it deserves.
Maybe President Howard Dean has some ideas.