First of all, the fact that the nominal frontrunner is not making regular visits to Iowa certainly gives the impression that the 2012 Republican caucuses in the Hawkeye state are less meaningful. The other candidates, however, aren't behaving as if Iowa is anything other than one of the first states in the presidential nomination process. [I'll focus on candidate visits here, but this concept could also be operationalized as money spent in the state thus far, staff hired and/or money contributed to the campaigns of 2010 candidates running for office in the state(s).] FHQ has looked at the visits data already and there is little to no evidence there that Iowa's role is shrinking.
Does the state have a smaller percentage of candidate visits than in 2008?
Is that being driven by Romney staying away from the Hawkeye state to this point?
Are the other candidates, prospective or otherwise, following suit?
No, not really.
Can the rest of the shift in the percentage of candidate visits from 2008 to 2012 be explained by regular cycle to cycle variation?
More than likely, yes.
Let's take a look. Democratic candidates in 2004 split their time pretty evenly between Iowa and New Hampshire. Out of 1660 combined candidate visits to both states only 60 visits separated the two (with Iowa having more.).1 In 2008 the story was different. Obama's increasing viability throughout the invisible primary, coupled with visits by the then-Illinois senator and Edwards' near-permanent presence in the state forced frontrunner Hillary Clinton to have a substantial presence in Iowa as well. Visits and poll position have a way of triggering increased activity from your opponents.
Of course, the point is well taken that these are data for Democrats, and there isn't an equivalent progressive movement within the Iowa Democratic Party that is pushing less "pure" candidates away in the way it has been hypothesized with Romney (and/or other candidates) and Iowa's GOP. Iowa did have a fairly healthy advantage over New Hampshire in terms of the number of visits from Republicans in 2008. No, the discrepancy between Iowa and New Hampshire wasn't as great among Republicans as it was among Democrats, but there were over 200 more visits to Iowa than New Hampshire. But that wasn't the case in 2000, the last competitive Republican nomination race, when most of the Republicans ceded the Hawkeye state to George W. Bush. The focus instead was on New Hampshire which got more attention relative to Iowa. The point here is that there are great number of factors involved in determining how much attention one of these first two states receives and it varies from cycle to cycle.
Is there something to the argument that a rightward shift among the Iowa GOP caucusgoers is forcing anything resembling a revisitation of strategy from the campaigns' perspectives?
Yeah, there's probably something to it, but its impact is being grossly overstated in typically very narrow examinations of the circumstances. And the fact that the nominal frontrunner is the one who isn't showing up -- especially to the level he did in his prior run -- it exacerbates the the perception that Iowa will take a backseat. The take home message is that we shouldn't look at Iowa in 2012 in a vacuum. There is a much broader picture here beyond "Iowa Republicans are lurching to the right and the state is suffering as a result".
Now, having set up the proper context through which the Iowa attention situation should be viewed, there is some evidence that Iowa is dropping off. It all depends on the window of time (in which visits occur) is used. According to the Politico 2012 Live Candidate Tracker Iowa has had 182 [prospective] candidate visits since the day after the 2008 election -- the point at which the 2012 invisible primary started. Over that same period of time, New Hampshire had 127 visits. That particular time period is going to contain visits that were made on behalf of candidates running for state and congressional office and Iowa's size and number of competitive districts would have to be accounted for as well. Even then, it wasn't as if New Hampshire was not competitive in 2010 in terms of congressional or state legislative races. But for the sake of this examination, let's close that window to include visits since the day after the 2010 elections. Over that period, Iowa had 79 visits to New Hampshire's 82; a near even distribution of total candidate visits. Since the first of the year that gap is only slightly wider: Iowa has had 68 visits and New Hampshire 78.
New Hampshire, then, has had a greater number of recent visits, but the sky is hardly falling on Republicans in Iowa. Again, the composition of the state party may be a contributing factor to the discrepancy, but it is only one of many and would have a less significant impact than the usual cycle to cycle variation that we normally observe. Plus, once Romney sets foot in the state, a lot of these stories will disappear (or be re-spun as "Romney isn't paying as much attention to Iowa this time" stories).