We know how presidential candidates get ahead in contests like the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. They’re tests of candidates’ skills at “retail” politics — would-be presidents are expected to spend an inordinate amount of time meeting voters directly. The road to success goes through backyard barbecues, kitchen tables, and Kiwanis Club halls.

At least, that’s how it has traditionally worked.

For now, Newt Gingrich is leading the Republican pack in Iowa, despite not having spent a lot of time in the state, not opening a campaign office in the state until a few days ago, and not airing so much as a single commercial. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, has visited literally every county in Iowa, and invested months of effort. What does he have to show for it? Santorum is running seventh of eight GOP candidates.

Even Mitt Romney, though he’s seen his support slip steadily in recent months, has been quite competitive in Iowa, even after ignoring Hawkeye State voters for much of the year.

The NYT‘s Jeff Zeleny reported this week that the nature of retail politics may be “a thing of the past,” as candidates replace in-person visits with media interviews and debate performances.

At a certain level, one might have expected this shift several decades ago, as modern media reached nearly every household. But it wasn’t until “the Fox effect” began to dominate Republican politics that the larger shift completely took hold.

Cable networks are staging more debates than ever, obliging candidates to build their fall schedules around preparing for and traveling to the slickly produced televised clashes, and putting a premium on skills different from those of retail campaigning.

A number of candidates, especially Mr. Gingrich and Herman Cain, have used their campaigns as promotional tours for books, movies and their own personal brands. As a result, they often visit places that are good markets for them rather than going to the traditional early-voting states, enabling them to skirt some of the scrutiny that comes with regular appearances before voters.

A log compiled by Fox News showed that it had interviewed Mr. Cain 63 times since he announced his candidacy — more than any of his rivals — followed by Mr. Gingrich with 52 television appearances.

There’s never been an instance in which a national news outlet served as an appendage to a major political party, and we’re witnessing the effects. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), whose presidential campaign failed after relying on the traditional model, acknowledged, “It’s like a town hall every day on Fox News. You hear people talking back to you what you saw yesterday on Fox. I like Fox, and I’m glad we have an outlet, but it is having a major, major effect on what happens.”

Those who continue to argue that Iowa and New Hampshire deserve to be the first nominating states push a straightforward line: these are small states with small populations, best able to kick the tires and look under the hood when these candidates show up repeatedly, asking for support. But that rationale falls apart if these same voters get what they need to know from Fox News, just as Republican voters can do in any other state.

Having said that, there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder if some of these Republicans will wake up in January, wondering whether they’d have fared even a little better had they spent more time shaking hands, kissing babies, and actually listening to voters in the early nominating states.

If not, and a guy like Gingrich can excel without relying on a traditional, retail model, Iowans should stop expecting Republican candidates to show up in the future.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.