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How Herman Cain Fans Ended Up As Iowa’s Swing Voters

Iowa City, Iowa - Now that the Cain Train’s spectacular derailment is firmly in the rearview mirror, and his supporters have dispersed, it’s time to ask who has benefitted from the enthusiasm that propelled him. I spoke with about a dozen party leaders in populous, influential districts to try to get at the answer.

One thing is clear: Newt Gingrich has picked up portions of the Cain vote. Steve Grubbs, Cain’s Iowa campaign chair, told me that most of his supporters went to Gingrich, with Michele Bachmann the secondary beneficiary. “Those looking for strong Tea Party credentials have aligned with Bachmann,” Grubbs said, while those who seek a widely-electable candidate shifted toward Gingrich. “Romney has an appeal to a lot of Republicans,” Grubb said, “but I don’t think he’s a great fit for Herman Cain Republicans.”

There are other signs that Gingrich has directly benefited from Cain’s absence. Dean Kleckner, the chief of the Iowa Farm Bureau, provided Cain with a crucial early endorsement; he’s since endorsed Gingrich. “I think it was a natural progression,” he told me, “though, to be honest, I knew both candidates personally.” Kevin McLaughlin, GOP chair of Polk County, Iowa’s most populous district, mentioned to me that Charlie Gruschow, an influential founder of the Iowa Tea Party, originally endorsed Cain but now supports Gingrich—“an unmistakable sign that Gingrich is going to get some of those Tea Party votes here in the state.” Gingrich will do well in Polk County, McLaughlin predicts, but he’s uncertain about the rest of the state.

To get the perspective of Republicans in western Iowa, I called Jeff Jorgensen, GOP chair of Pottawattamie County, known for its geographic expanse and socially conservative voters. Jorgensen endorsed Cain early on, but has since struggled to find a clear personal favorite. He and other Cain supporters in his region have banded together, hoping to make a high-profile endorsement that will affect the dynamics of the race. Romney is not a contender. “We really don’t want to see Mitt Romney win Iowa or come in with a pretty good outcome in the caucuses.” The frontrunners, he told me, are Rick Santorum and Bachmann.

Brian Rosener, GOP chair of northwestern Woodbury County, also demonstrated that social issues are of primary import in his district, highlighting the often stark social divisions between eastern and western Iowa. “You have Gingrich and Romney both advocating for control of manmade global warming, which has been proven to be a total falsehood, if anything,” he told me. “You have both Romney and Gingrich advocating for government-mandated health care in one way or the other.” He also referenced dislike of Newt Gingrich’s support of amnesty for undocumented workers, his criticism of the Ryan plan, and his personal decision-making. “Throw in on top of that his marriage issues, especially here in Iowa where we fought very hard to throw out three judges who handed Iowa same-sex marriage illegally. He’s not consistent on that issue, or on the abortion issue either,” Rosener said. He even accused Romney and Gingrich of avoiding western Iowa to evade questions about party inconsistencies. “They know they’ll get asked tough questions and that their support will actually drop if they come,” he said.

A few other themes came up repeatedly in my conversations:

* Though Ron Paul is polling high recently, several GOP chairs mentioned that they feel a major part of his base—college students—will leave Iowa for winter break and won’t caucus for him.

* Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are likely to benefit from spending within the state; Santorum has visited all 99 counties in Iowa, and Bachmann pledges she will before Iowans vote. Several party leaders mentioned that support for both candidates is rising, and the in-person appearances make both candidates stronger. Jorgensen told me he sees a “noticeable increase in people attending [Santorum]’s events here in western Iowa.”

* If Gingrich and Romney lose Iowa, it may not matter. “You don’t spend much money in Iowa unless the evangelical leadership in the west side of the state supports you,” Jim Conklin, former chair of Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids, told me. “It’s very expensive to try to win the entire state. The important part in my view is to try to place somewhere within the top four. I say top four because McCain finished fourth in 2008.”

Perhaps the most consistent theme, however, was unprecedented uncertainty. “My guess is that [my district] has about 60 percent of the caucus-goers still undecided, like me,” Black Hawk County GOP chair Mac MacDonald told me, by e-mail. Conklin sees widespread uncertainly among voters and party elites. This Sunday, he said, “I just did a quickie straw poll of fifteen. …I think four were undecided.” Mark Lundberg, chair of Sioux County’s GOP, told me: “I’ve been active with the party since 1976, and don’t think I’ve ever had a time where I’ve been so undecided.” “More than any previous caucus that I remember,” says Judy Davidson, GOP chair in Scott County, “people are still undecided and have not committed to a candidate.” 2012’s Republican primary race is in a class by itself, says Steve Grubbs. “This is like nothing I’ve seen,” he said, “and this is my fifth presidential caucus.”

Joe Fassler, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, writes for The Atlantic online and other publications.