By Lynn Campbell
DES MOINES — Iowa’s influence in choosing presidential nominees generally diminishes after its first-in-the-nation caucuses. But this year could be different because of the lack of finality in who will be the Republican nominee.
“I think we’re in a different election cycle than we’ve ever seen before. Historically, the nominee has already been chosen. Clearly, we don’t have a chosen nominee yet,” said Republican National Committeewoman Kim Lehman of Johnston. “That goes back to a trend that’s happening where people are not allowing the political gurus to make the decision for the grassroots voters.”
Voters in 10 states will cast their votes on Super Tuesday. It’s considered the biggest single day of the Republican presidential campaign, with 419 delegates up for grabs. But with the GOP front-runner changing at least a half-dozen times so far, political analysts aren’t predicting that Tuesday will bring finality to the nomination process.
Four days after Super Tuesday, Iowa Republicans will gather for county conventions. They will vote Saturday on platforms and choose delegates who will go on to the April 21 district conventions, and the June 16 state convention.
Iowa’s selection in June of who will be its 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Fla. is key because the Jan. 3 caucuses — which were key in creating momentum and winnowing the field of candidates — were non-binding. That means Iowa delegates aren’t required to vote for former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, even though he won the caucuses with 34 more votes than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“The delegate process, this time, is taking on a little bit more focus,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, a nonprofit that advocates against gay marriage and abortion. “There’s no doubt that this is where it starts ... You want your people to get involved in these conventions at the county level.”
Drew Ivers, a member of the Republican State Central committee who was Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s Iowa campaign manager, encouraged people new to politics to get involved and attend this weekend’s county conventions. Paul finished third in the Iowa caucuses. Ivers predicted that Paul will stay in the race until the end.
“Ron Paul’s interested in getting as many supporters as possible to head to Tampa and would be open to the possibility of people supporting him,” Ivers said. “To get delegates, each candidate wants to have their supporters go to the county convention.”
A poll last month showed that Paul, Santorum and Romney would all beat President Barack Obama in Iowa if the general election were held today.The Feb. 12-15 poll of 611 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Attendance at Republican county meetings is up statewide.
“I’ve seen a big increase in attendance of our local meetings, our monthly meetings. It’s probably almost doubled,” said Harold Massner of Burlington, chairman of the Des Moines County Republicans in southeast Iowa. “The enthusiasm is there. I couldn’t have generated that. Just in general, people are not happy with our country and the direction we’re going. It’s not so much a particular candidate.”
Massner said meetings that generally are attended by up to 25 people recently have attracted 50. He said the county, which backed Santorum in the Iowa caucuses, is expecting about 75 people at this Saturday’s county convention at James Madison Middle School.
The Family Leader recently sent a letter to Republican chairmen in Iowa’s 99 counties, urging its conservative base to keep marriage and other social conservative issues a focus at the upcoming conventions.
The hope by Vander Plaats, whose endorsement of Santorum on Dec. 20 helped propel him to victory in the Iowa caucuses, is that Republicans ultimately will have a “brokered convention.” That means there aren’t enough delegates earned during the presidential primary and caucus process for a single candidate to have a pre-existing majority.
A candidate needs 1,144 of a potential 2,286 delegates to seal the nomination.
“With the likelihood that it could go to a brokered convention, it would only be a benefit to have pro-family conservatives be delegates at that national convention,” Vander Plaats said. “I think it behooves all states at all levels to take the delegate process very, very seriously. This might not be coronation.”
Roberts said this year could be a repeat of 1976, when the nominee wasn’t determined until the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. That year, incumbent President Gerald Ford won the nomination with just 117 delegates more than former California Gov. Ronald Reagan — 1,187 to 1,070. Ford went on to lose the presidential election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
But Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler of West Des Moines said he believes Republicans will decide on their presidential nominee before the national convention, Aug. 27-30.
“I just don’t think it’s going to be a broker convention. I would be shocked if it is,” said Scheffler, who’s also president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit Christian conservative group. “I think if you get to the convention and you’ve got somebody 150 delegates short, and the other one is 500 to 700 votes short, you may see people start gravitating to the person who’s closest to the top because they don’t want to see a lot of drama on the national convention floor.”
Ivers said he is waiting to see what happens on Super Tuesday. He said that should give the nation a better idea of how viable each candidate is, whether Santorum will pass Romney, and whether former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich will drop out. He also noted that Iowa’s 28 delegates is a pretty small portion of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination.
“As the process continues and if Romney continues momentum in Super Tuesday, then the impact of Iowa’s 28 becomes smaller and smaller as the total gets bigger and as the larger states approach — Texas, New York, California,” Ivers said. “By the time Aug. 27 comes around, it’s very likely there will not be a broker convention … The count will speak for itself.”