02/01/2012 07:00 GMT | Updated 03/03/2012 05:12 GMT

The Iowa Test: State of Play

As I write this blog I am headed to Iowa with less than two days until the first caucuses take place. The Iowa Caucuses are the official beginning of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination and where the rubber meets the road.

The State of Play.

As I write this blog I am headed to Iowa with less than two days until the first caucuses take place.

The Iowa Caucuses are the official beginning of the race for the Republican Presidential nomination and where the rubber meets the road.

At this point, this race is still up for grabs and the front runner seems to be changing on a daily

if not hourly basis.

Within a two week period Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney all held that fleeting honour of being 'Number 1.'

The latest Des Moines Register Polls shows Romney ahead with 24, Ron Paul with 22, in second place and Rick Santorum with 15, in third place and picking up steam.

Although if you look deeper into that poll which was taken over several days, in the last few days Santorum seems to be pulling ahead of Paul.

There are also trends behind these numbers, Romney has remained constant and has picked up some steam.

Paul seems to have hit his highest number and may be trending down as he has suffered some damage with the focus on some racist statements in his news letters from his past and the support of white supremacists groups who have endorsed his campaign.

Rick Santorum seems to be the Christian Conservative darling of the week - perhaps benefiting from the Gingrich slide (who dropped from 25 to 12) and Paul's recent troubles - not to mention the fact that he is the last contender who has not had his moment in the sun (aside from Huntsman who is not competing in Iowa).

Over 40% of potential caucus goers have said they have not made up their mind or could change their mind at this late date. As a result the latest Des Moines Register Poll results could be very influential in convincing some of these voters to make their choice.

Why are the Iowa Caucuses the first in the nation?

Iowa has not always been first. In fact the Iowa caucuses prior to 1972 used to take place in the middle of the nominating process. Since there were not a huge number of delegates up for grabs they occurred without much fanfare.

In 1972 the Democrats decided to make some changes allowing for proportional representation. The date was moved up into January to give the state party chairman enough time to hand out the rules.

In 1972 these changes helped propel then Senator George McGovern to win the Democratic Nomination when no one thought he had a chance.

In fact, in the last presidential election cycle, Iowa was a real turning point for the Obama campaign when candidate Barack Obama showed he could beat both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in a state that has virtually no minority population.

The Republicans thought the changes the Democrats made in 1972 were a good idea and followed suit. So now since 1976 both parties hold their caucuses on the same day in January.

This idea raised Iowa's political profile and its importance in the process.

Iowa and both its Republicans and Democrats now fiercely defend their 'First in the Nation' status.

Is Iowa a good barometer of who is likely to win the nomination?

Probably not since Iowa has not been a reliable predictor for picking the ultimate nominee.

However, Iowa offers the 'long shot' candidate the chance to prove that it really is a race to win the nomination of your party and not just the anointment of the 'chosen front runner.'

Iowa is small enough to offer a candidate who is not able to start with a huge financial war chest the ability to stage an upset.

Because of its size and location in the 'heartland' of America, Iowa was a place known for real, honest, retail politics where the voters expect to meet the candidates up close and personal.

This time that has not been the case. While some contenders like Paul, Michele Bachmann and Santorum have been pounding the payment and the cornfields since very early in this race - visiting all 99 counties-others like Gingrich, Perry and Romney have been late comers - and Huntsman who is skipping Iowa altogether.

There has been a huge amount of money spent on ads for such a small state. These media campaigns have hurt those who don't have the funds to hit back.

This is especially true in the last few weeks where outside money and ads from SuperPacs basically deflated Gingrich's balloon.

With the increasing influence of the evangelical movement in Iowa and its lack of diversity, Iowa has become less representative of the average American voter over the years.

Iowa is however demographical representative in the following ways - in its median income and its mix of urban and rural voters.

This year however Iowa is not representative of the nation when it comes to economic troubles, it has one of the lowest unemployment rates as does New Hampshire - next week's battleground!

However, Iowa does have a lot to offer since this is the first time people will actually vote in a meaningful way for any of the GOP contenders.

The voters will get a chance to see the candidates under pressure and to test their organisational skills and their ground game.

If a candidate wins or places in the top 3 in Iowa, this could give that contender enough momentum and attract enough support and money to continue on.

How do the caucuses work and who participates in the caucuses?

Again the way the caucuses work differs a bit between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Since all the action at this time is on the race for the Republican nomination, we will focus on those caucuses.

Voters go to one of the 1,774 precincts at 7p.m. CT. Here is where a campaign's organisational skills and ground game matters. If you have committed and enthusiastic followers they will actually show up.

To participate in the Republican Caucuses voters must be register Republicans. However, it is possible for non-Republicans to register on site.

Although Iowa politicians say this rarely occurs, voters can go and register as a Republican to participate and then change their registration back if they desire to do so.

As a result it is possible for Independents and Democrats to change their registration and join the process- thereby creating the potential of a 'wild card effect.'

On the Republican side before the voting begins, caucus goers get to hear their neighbors and people they respect in their community speak about why they believe their choice should be the Republican nominee.

The Republicans cast their votes by secret ballot however there are appeals from candidate's supporters, negotiation and candidate - switching before the balloting begins.

No matter who wins, delegates will be proportionally allocated to the number of supporters for each candidate.

The delegates are not bound to vote for their candidate (but they usually do).

These delegates will attend the county and state conventions later in the year as part of the official nomination process.

They will also participate at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida in late August to pick the Republican Nominee.

At this point what matters is which of the candidates really has the firm and committed supporters who will actually go out and participate in the caucuses.

This is where on the ground organisation really matters.

Although it is impossible to predict what will happen on Tuesday night in such a tight race, at this point I think Romney will hang on to the top spot.

The real story here is that Romney has the most money, the best national organization and seems the most electable - but just can't break through his 20% level of support. Iowa Republicans seem to be having a tough time falling in love with Mitt.

All of this means there is a real possibility of a Santorum upset since he is lucky enough to be a rising star - with momentum so close to Election Day.

What Santorum has that Romney does not have is Christian Evangelical support and true blue collar credentials.

If Santorum pulls off an offset the real question is where does he go from there? Right now he does not have the money or organisation to effectively compete with Romney in this tightly packed primary schedule.

It is possible that if Santorum bests Romney, this could be the beginning of a Romney - Santorum team similar to Clinton-Gore in 1992.

Romney has the money, organisation and the support of the traditional big money Republicans and Santorum could fill his weak spots - appeal with the Christian Evangelical base and blood collar bona fides.

The schedule is fast moving and it is truly off to the races with New Hampshire on January 10, South Carolina on 21 Jan , Florida on 31 Jan and the Nevada Caucuses on 4 Feb.


This blog can also be read on Sky News