DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, Cokie was talking there about the political reality facing Republicans, and let's hear more about that now. The GOP does want to broaden its base and its appeal, but the party's path to the presidency still starts in a place where religious conservatives can dominate a low turnout caucus. That place is Iowa. We had a presidential election less than nine months ago, but 2016 hopefuls are already showing up in that state. That included Republican Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz over the weekend.
It's a reminder of how early it all begins and also an indication of the problem posed by Iowa itself. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Senators Cruz and Paul each met with evangelical voters on Friday. And in the coming weeks, more possible candidates will show up for a summit called by The Family Leader, an evangelical and political force in the state. That organization's president, Bob Vander Plaats, was a major player in the last two rounds of Iowa caucuses and sees no need for the party to do any rebranding. To the contrary, he says, the lesson of 2012 is be true to social conservative principles.
BOB VANDER PLAATS: We need to double down on being a real, authentic conservative and we may win again.
GONYEA: Former Senator Rick Santorum - a star with religious conservatives - eked out a win in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, but succumbed to eventual nominee Mitt Romney in the overall race. Vander Plaats says economic and other issues shouldn't get short shrift in Iowa. They just shouldn't supersede the social causes.
PLAATS: Karl Rove and all the political elites tell us, you know, we need to win the independents, that's where the battleground is. Well, the fact of the matter is that Mitt Romney did great with the independents. Matter of fact, he won independents in many of the tossup states, but he got crushed by his base.
GONYEA: Vander Plaats is among those Republicans who think they can gain more by bringing back values voters who stayed home in 2012 than by reaching out to groups that now lean Democratic. At this point, it seems very unlikely Iowa will be dislodged from its early spot on the calendar, but veteran GOP consultant, Alex Castellanos says it's a problem that so much of the pre-election year debate is about who's the most conservative on abortion or gay marriage.
He adds that the caucus model attracts relatively low turnout, rewarding super activists and campaign machinery while making it harder for average Iowans to participate.
ALEX CASTELLANOS: The goal is not to make Iowa important. The goal is for the Republican Party to win an election. And I think turning it into a test of muscle is not as good as turning it into a test of popularity.
GONYEA: Castellanos says even if Iowa keeps its first in the nation status, its results would be much more representative if it were a primary and not a caucus.
CASTELLANOS: I'd still keep Iowa central, but I do think they need a less closed process.
GONYEA: Then, there's Sean Trende, an election's analyst at RealClearPolitics.com. He says there are already developments that could serve to de-emphasize Iowa. The Citizens United court decision in 2010 opened the door for outside groups and individuals to spend without limit in presidential contests. That means even a candidate who finished very poorly in Iowa can still find a sponsor to keep him or her in the race.
Take Newt Gingrich who finished a week fourth in Iowa last time, but had a wealthy backer who enabled him to soldier on for months. Here's Trende:
SEAN TRENDE: The old way of looking at the primary process is going to way of the dodo bird. You know, I think because you can now keep campaigns going for a lengthy period of time because the money flows in so much more freely that Iowa is not as critical as it once was.
GONYEA: Especially not for a candidate who does not plan to court evangelicals and other religious voters. Trende says a candidate such as Chris Christie ought to just skip Iowa if they New Jersey governor does, in fact, seek the presidency. But not so fast, says longtime Iowa political watcher David Yepsen, who's now with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Illinois. He says skipping Iowa has been tried before and been proven risky.
DAVID YEPSEN: There will be a winner and there will be a lot of media attention that focuses on that person. You can ask President Rudy Giuliani how bypassing Iowa works.
GONYEA: Giuliani, a moderate to liberal on social issues, was an early GOP front-runner in polls four years ago. He decided he didn't need Iowa and found his campaign failing to gain traction in other states. Yepsen also notes that the mix of issues in Iowa is not that different from what candidates will find in Republican contests in many other states.
YEPSEN: The Republican Party is, itself, dominated by religious conservatives. That's part of what the Republican Party is so it shouldn't become as any surprise that in the first contest, religious conservatives are going to have a lot of influence in the outcome.
GONYEA: Judging by the reactions seen so far, there's a good bet that will be the case again in 2016. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.