Rep. Michele Bachmann (left) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (right)
DES MOINES, Iowa -- With the 2012 presidential campaign well underway here, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the top tier Republican candidates have largely ignored a crucial part of the state: the Northwest quadrant.
“There is not a more important region in Iowa than the Northwest counties,” a GOP strategist tells First Read. “While making up just a quarter of the state, they have an enormous, out-sized say in who will win Iowa.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the supposed frontrunner, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the winner of the Ames Straw Poll in August, have focused their campaigns thus far in the center of the state -- only a short radius from the capital city. Bachmann has only held four of her more than 70 events in the state in the Northwest, while Perry has yet to visit the region at all.
“Sometimes campaigns get a little bit lazy, and they skip the edges, but there’s an awful lot of votes in Northwest Iowa,” former Iowa GOP Chairman and CEO of Victory Enterprises Steve Grubbs admitted.
While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has ignored Iowa all together, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Congressmen Ron Paul, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain have spent considerable amounts of time in the Northwest counties. Santorum, according to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, has held 46 events in the region.
"Sen. Santorum is connecting well with Northwest Iowa voters, because he is speaking to the issues that they care most deeply about," said Jamie Johnson, state coalitions director for Santorum's campaign. "People appreciate his authenticity."
With Gingrich and Paul both making campaign stops in Sioux City last week, many Republicans heavily involved in the caucus process are surprised Perry and Bachmann are not trying to capitalize on the voters there yet.
“There is a goldmine of votes in Northwest Iowa,” a Republican strategist said, “and the GOP candidates had better get serious about campaigning there soon, or risk losing vital votes in Northwest Iowa.
“Northwest Iowa is a strongly conservative, evangelical, and heavily Republican area,” Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, pointed out. There are not only more Republicans than Democrats in that area, Goldford said, but also more Republicans than independents. Registered independents outnumber both registered Democrats and Republicans statewide.
“Western Iowa, in general, and Northwest Iowa, in particular, have always played an important role in the Republican precinct caucuses, and that will be just as true in 2012,” admits Eric Woolson, Bachmann’s Iowa communications director and former Mike Huckabee aide.
The Northwestern part of the Hawkeye State has proved to be a key area for Republicans in recent elections. Both the 2008 caucus winner, Huckabee, and the 2010 gubernatorial winner, Terry Branstad, posted large turnout numbers in the counties in the most conservative part of the state.
“Gov. Huckabee was very popular in Northwest Iowa and had strong support in the area,” Woolson said.
Why then, if the Northwest region helped propel Huckabee ahead of Romney, who spent the most in the state, are Perry and Bachmann not spending more time there?
David Yepsen, the longtime political writer for The Des Moines Register and now a professor at Southern Illinois University, says expect to see more of an emphasis in the region this fall.
“The race hasn’t gelled enough,” Yepsen said. “It may be the campaigns are still trying to figure out: (1) what the calendar is, (2) what the field is, and (3) how to play it. It’s amazing how fluid it is this close to caucus night. As we get closer to the date, you’ll see more effort being expended there.”
Perry’s Iowa Chairman Bob Haus, said the governor would be putting a focus on the Northwest counties moving forward.
“There are big Republican population areas up there,” he said, “but there is also just a lot of conservative activists that I think Gov. Perry would appeal to in terms of his philosophy and stance on the issue.”
As for the Bachmann strategy, Woolson said, the congresswoman “will be devoting quite a bit of time to campaigning in Northwest Iowa as we go forward to caucus night."
Bachmann, in fact, heads to the region Monday, and Perry makes his first trip there next weekend.