Iowa's Political Landscape: Who Needs to Win Where
Iowan Republicans will gather this evening in the caucus meetings to deliberate and vote, caucuses that remain very difficult to predict. The candidates' campaigns will be watching not only who is receiving votes but where their votes are cast. As the results pour in, the campaigns will be checking to see if counties that typically support social conservatives are breaking for candidates like Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or Michele Bachmann.
Iowa's political geography looks mimics much of the country for the GOP. For Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the key will be to do well in the cities on the east and west sides of the state. The cities are more diverse and moderate than the more rural, conservative midland. Social conservatives, however, will be competing for the base of Christian conservatives located in the southern part of the state.
In 2008, current GOP frontrunner Romney came in second in Iowa behind Mike Huckabee. Supported by social conservatives, Huckabee won most of the 99 counties in Iowa. In that contest, the better Huckabee polled, the worse Romney fared. There was a divide between "Romney-Republican" counties and the counties where social conservatives reside. Romney did well (though not well enough) four years ago because he won the more populous regions on the eastern and western edges of the state.
This year, Romney's campaign will once again be looking to these counties to see how well he does after campaigning yesterday in an attempt to shore up his base of support. The outcomes from Sioux City, the suburbs of Omaha (Nebraska), Dubuque, the Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids, and Waterloo will all be critical in determining how big Romney's bounce will be.
A majority of the state, however, does not live in any of the metropolitan areas. Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann need to build their support a little bit here, a little bit there, gathering votes from the small towns scattered across the Iowa plains. Each candidate hopes to do well throughout the middle of the state, but the south central region is the most important indicator of who will do well among social conservatives. The campaigns of Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann will be keeping an eye on the counties south of Des Moines to see who will be winning among social conservatives.
In an unpredictable race like this year's caucus, there are two more signs to watch. The first is Newt Gingrich's vote total. He has the potential to compete well in eastern and western counties that supported Romney last time around. At the same time, he could receive more support from the rest of the state where more moderate voters will be unlikely to support Romney.
The second sign will be the votes coming out of the Des Moines area, a wealthier and more educated area located in the middle of the state. With diversity and population size, it will likely go the same way as the state as a whole.
By tomorrow, the field will be winnowed and the race will be already off to New Hampshire and South Carolina.