In Sioux County, Is 2nd Place Best?

BY Dante Chinni  January 3, 2012 at 11:00 AM EDT

Ron Paul; photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Iowans listen to Texas Rep. Ron Paul last week during a town hall meeting at the Sioux Center Public Library. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Everyone likes to win, but sometimes it’s better to finish second.

Up in the northwest corner of Iowa is lightly populated Sioux County, an agricultural “Tractor Country” community in Patchwork Nation. Home to acres of farmland, two small Christian colleges and a deep streak of social conservatism, it is not prone to picking the eventual Republican nominee in the caucuses. Rather it tends to side with the candidate who has the strongest cultural conservative credentials.

In 1996, it voted for conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. In 2000, it was religious right leader Gary Bauer. And in 2008, Sioux went with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

But take a look at who has come in second in Sioux in the last three contested Iowa caucuses: 1996, Sen. Robert Dole; 2000, Texas Gov. George Bush; and 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain. All three went on to capture the GOP nomination.

Why? The majority of caucus voters in Sioux go with their hearts and support the person they would like to see win. But there is a strong current of establishment Republicanism beneath the rank-and-file — and those voters are pragmatists.

In 2008, Patchwork Nation was in Sioux Center, the county seat of Sioux, days before the caucus when the county’s Republican leaders abandoned their support of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. They had backed him early in the race, but decided he was ultimately not going to win.

Huckabee ran away with the vote in Sioux, capturing 52 percent of the vote, but the swing away from Romney was crucial in the county. McCain wound up edging Romney for second place, 15.8 percent to 14 percent.

So how is the caucus vote shaping up for Tuesday? As Patchwork Nation has already noted, without a candidate like Huckabee, who won all around the state in different kinds of areas, it’s tough to say for certain. (See the map below for 2008 results.)

Early informal polls in the Sioux county — as far back as back in November — showed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was surging, says Steve Hoogland, editor of the Sioux Center News. That surge still feels palpable, Hoogland says, and that would certainly fit with the history of the small town of 6,000.

But what about that all-important second-place finish? That’s far from clear.

Romney, who visited the county often in 2008, has not paid a lot of attention to it this cycle but still has support. Texas Rep. Ron Paul had about 200 people come to a rally at the city library last week — a good turnout — and it was not the usual political crowd, Hoogland says. And Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has paid several visits to the area.

“It’s very tough to predict this year,” Hoogland says. “It’s going to depend on who shows up.” That’s something that will be better understood in just a few hours.

Follow Tuesday’s results from the Iowa caucuses by county and community on this Patchwork Nation map.