Presidential contest begins today in Iowa

Unless they have been hiding out on an isolated South Sea island the past few months, most Americans are no doubt aware that the first measurable contest of the 2012 presidential campaign is being held today in Iowa — the Iowa Republican Caucuses.

It’s not an actual primary election. The first of those will be held next week in New Hampshire. Rather, today’s Iowa contest is an indication of the presidential preferences of those relatively few Iowans who attend the caucuses.

As a column below notes, and numerous other observers have pointed out, the Iowa caucuses aren’t really very good indicators of who will become the next president, or even a party’s nominee. Ask wannabe president Mike Huckabee how his 2008 victory in the Iowa caucuses worked out for him.

But the Iowa caucuses can be spoilers. Candidates who are trailing in the polls or whose campaigns are faltering can effectively be left by the wayside if they don’t end up near the top in Iowa. That may apply to Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann this year.

As of Monday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney held a slight lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul in Iowa polling, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in third place.

Romney has hardly been the darling of many conservative Republicans the past few months. In fact, his nationwide poll numbers have rarely showed him with more than 25 percent support among GOP voters.

However, each time another candidate has come forward to challenge him and grab a lead in the polls for a short time, they have stumbled. Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Herman Cain have all had a shot, only to see their support collapse as news stories about their various activities, or their own words, have come back to harm them. Ron Paul began to surge late last month, but has fallen back recently.

Because Romney initially didn’t campaign hard in Iowa, and because he holds a huge lead in New Hampshire, many pundits believe that even if he comes in first or a close second in Iowa, he will be well on his way to the GOP nomination Wednesday.

It’s folly to attempt to predict in early January who will be elected president in November. There are too many things that can change between now and then.

Economist Robert Samuelson, writing in The Washington Post Monday, probably had the most reasonable prediction. Barring some major unexpected event along the lines of 9/11, President Barack Obama’s re-election chances will depend mostly on the state of the economy next fall.

If it seems to be improving, and the vast number of Americans in the political middle feel confident about the future, they will likely return Obama to the White House. If not, and they don’t fear the Republican nominee, they will replace Obama.

But it’s not Americans in the political center who will let their preferences be known in today’s Iowa caucuses. Rather, it will be a relatively small number of Republican activists.

So, let the contest begin.


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