Eric Gay, Associated Press
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, stand together, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.

For 40 years now, serious presidential contenders have had to disproportionately consider Iowa farmers in their presidential aspirations, leading many observers to suspect that fat farm subsidies are driven by presidential politics rather than the national interest. So when the Iowa Corn Growers Association ranked the GOP presidential contenders this fall, they highlighted some of the reasons many Americans think the Iowa caucuses should be moved to the back bench.

Candidates were ranked on issues that matter to Iowa corn farmers, including regulations and subsidies that raise corn prices by propping up ethanol, a corn-based biofuel once viewed as an environmental godsend, but now derided by many scientists, economists and even environmentalists as political influence trumping rational policy. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who told the farmers mostly what they wanted to hear, got an A and an A– respectively. Herman Cain, who spoke his mind, got an F. Mitt Romney, who did not return the survey but has been largely Iowa-friendly on ethanol issues, got a B. Rick Perry, whose Texas ranchers long ago tired of feed corn prices spiking under ethanol pressure, got a C–.

As Iowans head to their caucus meetings tonight, the eyes of the nation are again riveted on their unique and quirky caucus system, which strongly influences the storyline offered to the rest of the country. But it's a system under threat from other states, jealous of the undue influence of what many feel is an unrepresentative sample of the American polity.

Leading this pushback is Florida, which jumped its primary to Jan. 31, outflanking New Hampshire as the first primary in the nation. New Hampshire responded by bumping its date ahead again, and Nevada and South Carolina followed suit. For a moment, it appeared that a few states might push their primaries back into December, further elongating an already seemingly interminable presidential election cycle. But in the end Nevada blinked, accepting the first week of February. And so, for the moment, Iowa's role as sole first mover is secure.

Objections to Iowa's role extend beyond farm subsidies. On the Republican side, Iowa's electorate skews disproportionately toward evangelical Christians and hard-line conservatives. Add to this the caucus system itself, which — like Utah's nominating system — tends to favor a highly passionate and organized base, and you have a recipe for odd results.

This was first highlighted in 1988, when Pat Robertson, an evangelical minister with no government experience, scored a surprising 25 percent of the Republican vote in challenging two ultra-establishment candidates — Sen. Robert Dole and Vice President George Bush.

Bush himself fell to 19 percent that day while Dole, essentially playing on home turf from neighboring Kansas, won with 37 percent. Bush easily recovered in New Hampshire and cruised to the nomination. In 1996, Dole had a much tougher time against another upstart right-wing populist, Pat Buchanan, who pulled 23 percent in Iowa to Dole's 26 percent, signaling dampened enthusiasm in the base.

The next time Iowa's quirkiness surfaced on the GOP side was in 2008, when Mitt Romney's intensive commitment to winning the state was rewarded by a surprising victory for Mike Huckabee, who openly appealed to the evangelical vote and, it seemed, played to anti-Mormon hostility in doing so. Huckabee's victory severely damaged Romney, but as Huckabee lacked staying power, it ultimately benefited John McCain by derailing Romney. In the Iowa game, winning depends on performance against expectations, not outright victory. Hence, in 2008, the real winner came in third place.

On the Democratic side, Iowa has likewise helped to deflate presumption. In 2008, Hillary Clinton moved from presumptive to embattled when Barack Obama caught fire and edged her into third behind John Edwards. That fight dragged into June, but Clinton never recovered from Iowa. In 2004, another frontrunner, Howard Dean, fell to 18 percent behind a surging Edwards and eventual nominee John Kerry. Dean's reaction that night — a rambling rant followed by an infamous squawk — signaled his imminent demise.

So whereas McCain could score third in 2008 and consider it a win, Dean placing third in 2004 was a devastating defeat. It was all in the expectations.

After Romney's loss to Huckabee in 2008, he tried to wash his hands of the state, choosing for 2012 to focus on New Hampshire and subsequent primaries. Romney maintained a skeleton staff in Iowa, and then stood by and watched as challenger after challenger crashed in televised debates. In mid-December when Gingrich, his last strong challenger, tumbled (admittedly shoved by Romney with tough negative ads), Romney at last began to play to win in Iowa.

But the power of the quirky Iowa base remains in force, with Ron Paul continuing to poll strongly by appealing to anti-government libertarians and the suddenly ascendant Santorum picking up social conservatives. Romney's hope tonight is to allow Paul and Santorum, neither considered a serious long-term contender, to split the anti-Romney vote, thereby further sidelining Gingrich, the only remaining real threat. So on the eve of the quadrennial Iowa circus, the game of expectations is being played again. Having finally entered the fray, Romney could be damaged if he slips to third. But a close second that further deflates his main challenger will be seen as victory enough.

As always in Iowa, it's not the delegate count that matters: it's the narrative. And in the minds of many observers, it is one driven by the few at the expense of the many.

Eric Schulzke is a political scientist who lives in Pleasant Grove. Email: eric[at]