What should we expect from the results in Iowa tonight? I would prepare to be surprised.
In 1984 I ran the state for Vice President Walter Mondale’s campaign. We won with 49% of the vote. The surprise was that a Senator from Colorado, Gary Hart, took second with 19% of the vote. Iowa had introduced the country to someone new and we in the Mondale campaign were caught in the political fight of our lives just to get the nomination.
Four years later I was working for Congressman Dick Gephardt’s Presidential Campaign. Three weeks before the caucuses the vaunted Des Moines Register Poll had us in last place. On caucus night we were the surprise that year – coming from last in the pack to surge to the lead and win the state.
Oh yes, and I have experienced the worst of the Iowa surprise too.
In 2004 I was running Howard Dean’s campaign for President when we had a strong lead in Iowa with just a month to go to caucus night. Winning Iowa would have sent us on our way to the nomination. The surprise that caucus night? We took third.
My experience in Iowa may hail from the Democratic side of the aisle, but Iowa doesn’t play favorites. Republicans can be surprised on caucus night too. Here are some things I am looking for tonight that will indicate if that's going to happen:
Watch Dubuque: The county in the northeast corner of the state is heavily Catholic and an area Romney scored well in four years ago. If Rick Santorum isn’t winning here it means the Santorum surge isn’t real or isn’t big enough to matter. The state is 23% Catholic – if Santorum, a pro-life Catholic himself, consolidates the Catholic vote in Dubuque and elsewhere the Iowa surprise could be a Santorum win.
Turnout: The higher the turnout the more like it is that Ron Paul wins the state. Ron Paul pulls in college students as well as Democratic and Independent and voters who do not typically vote in GOP caucuses. If they show up, turnout will be unusually high and the surprise could be the GOP suddenly having to deal with a libertarian uprising in their party.
Settling for Romney: Iowa, after all the ups and downs of the year, could “settle for Romney” with voters worried about defeating Obama they could make their decision on electability like the experience I had with Mondale. – But even in this scenario (as I learned with Fritz) the surprise will be who took second.
Call it the curse of the frontrunner, but Romney is supposed to win, so the story coming out of Iowa if he does win might be on the unexpected second place finisher emerging as the "other candidate."
Two things that I think are important:
One, I think the GOP field is extremely weak – with Romney being among the weakest frontrunners in either party in recent history. It makes predicting the outcome and who the surprise will be very difficult.
Republicans won’t like me saying this – but one of the great things about democracy is that even in a weak field someone gets to win tonight. That presents a real opportunity for candidates who have been overlooked or discounted on the national stage – Santorum, Paul and maybe even Perry – to establish themselves when it matters most.
Lastly the one thing that is important to remember – there is a reason the Iowa surprise matters. Most pundits have been watching in detail for the last year or so – the rest of the world has not.
Most Americans will only start to focus on the Republican field tonight. That’s what makes Iowa and tonight so important.
Tonight, Iowa is going to introduce two or three potential GOP nominees to the country. The surprise will get the most attention – and that will have a huge impact on GOP nomination fight, especially in a year where a condensed primary schedule means that the next battle is only a week away in New Hampshire and South Carolina eleven days after that.
Joe Trippi is a Fox News contributor and political strategist who worked for Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and turned Howard Dean into an unlikely front runner in 2004. For more visit JoeTrippi.com.