Since Robertson’s run in 1988, there have been three competitive GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa. In 1996, Dole won again — but with a severely reduced margin. Whereas in 1988 he’d scored nearly 40 percent and routed a sitting vice president, in ’96 he managed a paltry 27 percent, with Pat Buchanan nipping at his heels. In 2000, George W. Bush, faced minimal opposition; his money and endorsements had scared most of his opponents out of the race by the fall of 1999 (with John McCain pulling the plug on Iowa to focus on New Hampshire). But the Iowa campaign, such as it was, was a testament to the Christian right’s clout. In one December ’99 debate, The Des Moines Register counted “more than 20 direct references to the father and son of the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith.” While Bush, who repeatedly stressed his Christianity, ended up winning handily, the 2000 caucuses also represented the high-water mark for Alan Keyes’ political career: He got 14 percent, good for third place. Eight years later, Mike Huckabee romped to a nine-point win — with 34 percent of the vote — over Mitt Romney.
And now, as 2012 approaches, the set-up seems perfect for the national GOP’s nightmare scenario, one that has been three decades in the making. Unlike 2000, there’s no George W. Bush in the current GOP field, a candidate with strong appeal to both the pragmatic party “establishment” and the right-wing base in Iowa. And (unless he decides to jump in), there isn’t even a Huckabee, someone capable of at least putting a friendly face on the Iowa GOP’s extremism. But there is Michele Bachmann. And Rick Santorum. And Newt Gingrich. And maybe Sarah Palin, if she were to run. And maybe even Herman Cain (you never know). It’s hard to imagine any of them winning the GOP nomination next year, but one of them could very well win Iowa, and emerge as a major player on the national stage throughout ’12 — a non-stop headache for a GOP that desperately wants swing voters to see the party as something more than a collection of hysterically irrational ideological extremists.