The candidates have posed next to a life-size butter cow in Des Moines, ridden motorcycles down the streets of Boone, bought 3,500 ears of sweet corn in Windsor Heights and given helicopter rides to state fair attendees. This is just what it means to run for president: ritual fun, meat-on-a-stick and all, in the great state of Iowa. “Pretty much every day in Iowa, you can go listen to somebody who wants to be president,” Cody Hoefert, the vice chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said. But is the presidential race listening to Iowa? Well before Feb. 1, when Iowa voters head to their caucuses, the 2016 contest is already a national campaign. National polls, not early voting states, have dictated who gets stage time in the Republican debates. The candidates who did invest early in Iowa have faltered and, in some cases, left the race entirely. And some presidential hopefuls have found more success from a viral social media post than from a day out on the stump. (One notable exception may be Senator Ted Cruz, who dethroned Mr. Viral himself, Donald J. Trump, from his front-runner status in one Iowa state poll on Monday).
While the state’s evangelical voters have drawn socially conservative candidates, more moderate Republican candidates have tended to shy away from investing too much in Iowa. In the 2008 Republican primaries, Senator John McCain eschewed Iowa visits, as did Mitt Romney in 2012. So far this year, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, appears to be following the same strategy; he has largely skipped over the state, thereby ignoring the Bush family tradition of visiting Iowa early and often. When Mr. Bush announced he would not be making an appearance at the Iowa Straw Poll because of another event, Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said in a statement, “We don’t buy this excuse and neither will Iowans.”
But for the candidates who have put an emphasis on touring Iowa’s 99 counties, that focus has not paid dividends. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana all made strong pushes in Iowa, only to drop out of the race. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, who won the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively, are hovering under 2 percent in state polls this year.
David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, wrote about politics for The Des Moines Register for 34 years. He says the fact that candidates who spent so much time in Iowa eventually dropped out of the race proved the state was fulfilling its role as the Great Winnower.