What are the paths forward for candidates seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination? Jennifer Rubin has an interesting post on her Right Turn blog on the Washington Post website. What Rubin foresees can be summarized in one phrase: a traffic jam in Iowa.

She argues that seven putative candidates would have to contest the Iowa caucuses:

  • Haley Barbour, presumably because he’s a cultural conservative.
  • Newt Gingrich: “as a national figure, he can’t very well avoid Iowa.”
  • Mike Huckabee, because he won in Iowa in 2008.
  • Sarah Palin, because she’s a national figure (and because, although Rubin doesn’t mention it, she endorsed Governor Terry Branstad over his arguably more conservative opposition, in the 2010 governor primary, presumably with an eye on the caucuses).
  • Tim Pawlenty, because he’s from next-door Minnesota and has a conservative record on cultural issues.
  • Mike Pence, if he runs (as Rubin notes, he’s been looking lately more like a candidate for governor of Indiana next year), because he’s a cultural conservative.
  • John Thune, because he’s from next-door South Dakota.

The Republican caucuses in Iowa are typically dominated by religious conservatives; the 2008 exit poll showed that 60% of caucus attenders classified themselves as “Christian conservatives.” This is a much higher percentage than in most non-Southern Republican primaries.
Mike Huckabee, who campaigned explicitly as a Christian conservative, established a link with these voters and managed to overcome the well-financed, well-organized and personally intensive campaign of Mitt Romney by a 34%-25% margin, with 13% for Fred Thompson, 13% for John McCain (who mostly ignored Iowa, as he did completely in his 2000 campaign) and 10% for Ron Paul. But Huckabee was not able to capitalize on this; despite his fine performances in debates, his good sense of humor and unrivaled (among all 2008 candidates of both parties) ability to make references to popular culture, he never got more than 10% to 15% of the votes of primary voters or caucus-goers who did not classify themselves as religious conservatives.

The profile of Iowa caucus-goers could conceivably change in 2012. During the past decade the Iowa Republican party has lagged far behind the Iowa Democratic party in organization and recruiting new activists. But Iowa Republicans scored significant victories in 2010, notably Branstad’s defeat of incumbent Democratic Governor Chet Culver and the election of a majority in the state House, and perhaps more people are being energized. The median age of Republican caucus-goers in 2008 seems to have been well above 60; there’s certainly room for many more participants if they’re motivated to show up. Nonetheless, it’s Rubin’s assumption, and mine, that the Iowa caucuses are likely to be dominated by religious conservatives, and therefore candidates with appeal to that group who bypass Iowa will be making a confession of weakness likely to be fatal to their candidacies. Rubin identifies three putative candidates as likely to skip Iowa in favor of concentrating on the New Hampshire primary, with its much more libertarian, economically conservative electorate.

  • Mitch Daniels, whom she sees as having a tough time in Iowa “given skeptics about his social issues’ ‘truce.’” 
  • Mitt Romney, because “the risk of competing seriously and failing is high”; I think in retrospect Romney would have been much better off in 2008 skipping Iowa, where he spent months arguing that he was a strong cultural conservative despite some past statements which indicated the contrary, and concentrating on New Hampshire.
  • And Paul Ryan, who she says “might well become the consensus candidate” if he dominates the policy discussion on the budget and health care.

Rubin also mentions the two next contests on the calendar, the Nevada caucuses (where the turnout in 2008 was about half Mormon and which Romney won easily) and the South Carolina primary (where she thinks Barbour would have a big edge).