Let the political games begin: ISU experts preview the start of Iowa caucuses season

AMES, Iowa -- The 2012 Iowa caucuses are a little over a year away (Feb. 6, 2012), but campaigning among likely Republican challengers to President Obama will likely intensify across the state in the new year. And while potential GOP candidates have not formally announced their intentions, an Iowa State University political scientist says you can make some assumptions based on the familiar political faces in strange new Iowa places.

"Any high profile politician who starts appearing in Iowa and doesn't belong here is running -- or at least testing the waters for a possible run," said Steffen Schmidt (right), a University Professor of political science at ISU who has been studying the Iowa caucuses for 40 years and teaches the course, "The Iowa Presidential Caucuses" -- developed in cooperation with the Iowa Historical Society and the Department of Cultural Affairs.

If Schmidt's theory is correct, that could mean several prominent Republicans will run. They include 2008 candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, former governors of Massachusetts and Arkansas, respectively; 2008 vice presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- just to name a few. All have visited Iowa in the past four months.

Expect a large field of GOP candidates

And given the GOP's strong showing in November's midterm election, political pundits should expect a large field of Republican candidates, says Dave Peterson (left), an ISU associate professor of political science.

"These people choosing to run are strategic," Peterson said. "And since President Obama looks vulnerable, if they choose not to run now and the GOP candidate would beat Obama, there's good a chance that the incumbent would be the nominee again in 2016 -- meaning they wouldn't have another window to run until 2020. And by then, the sitting vice president would have the inside track. So this is the last chance in a decade for a Republican to run, and that's going to pull them all out of the woodwork."

Even though there will be candidates from just one party seriously vying for a "first in the nation" victory in their presidential nomination process this time, the large field of high profile candidates -- coupled with the first presidential race since the conservative Tea Party's historic rise to prominence -- should make the Iowa prize as big as ever.

"My take away is that Iowa is still the BIG story for 2012," Schmidt said. "We make the best 'start of the presidential season' story. And this will be the most interesting horse race in my 40 years as an Iowa political scientist.

"You can't beat serious folks who love politics and will go out in a blizzard to attend their caucus," he continued. "The Iowa Straw Poll [to be held at Iowa State on Saturday, Aug. 13, with a debate at ISU two nights earlier] is a classic, and in the dead news season of summer, it makes for great theater and great politics. Iowa still has social conservatives -- the main group supporting GOP politicians nationally -- so if anything, 2010 made us more mainstream in the GOP. I think we will deliver as we have always done to the news frenzy -- with pigs, wind energy, gay marriage, ethanol and great country cafes."

Palin's pseudo-celebrity appeal

Among all the potential candidates, Palin's run may carry the most media fascination. And Dianne Bystrom (right), director of Iowa State's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, says there are reasons for her pseudo-celebrity appeal.

"As the lines between media, politics and celebrity are increasingly diminished, Sarah Palin has very much emerged as the political personality for the new media age," Bystrom said. "While she criticizes the 'lame-stream' media, she also takes advantage of it, appearing on news shows as a serious political commentator. She's also a best-selling author through traditional publishing channels. Meanwhile, she has become an expert in new media, with huge followings on Facebook and Twitter and now with a reality television show.

"She is the perfect political commentator for our 20-second sound bite media environment and a public hooked on reality TV," she said.

Given the expected onslaught of political traffic over the next year, the preview to the Iowa caucuses may appear like a reality TV show before it's over. And this political show is just beginning.