Why Focusing on Iowa Hurts the GOP
Next week, months before the first real votes are cast, a relative handful of bused-in folks lured by free food and $30 tickets that candidates buy and distribute, will help determine the Republican presidential candidate for 2012.
The event is the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames, Iowa, a ginned-up event that, coupled with the first-in-the-nation caucuses early next year, gives Iowa an exaggerated role in presidential politics. To be sure, the straw poll won’t have much to do with determining which candidate will win the nomination and take on President Obama in November 2012. But it will help determine which GOP hopefuls will be driven out before anyone has a real say in the process.
The press is already reporting that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may drop out of the race if he loses the straw poll to Rep. Michele Bachmann, also from Minnesota, and that a poor showing will also doom the bid of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
But in truth, the straw poll measures only one thing: the ability of campaigns to give away tickets, fill up chartered buses and deliver folks to Ames. It might be a good way to hire a logistics expert or a travel agent, but it’s no way to start picking a president.
To begin with, the presumed front-runner on the Republican ticket, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, isn’t even participating. And a potential top contender, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, won’t be on the fake ballot because he hasn’t decided whether he’s running. The same goes for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
So much will be made of Bachmann’s performance. Story after story will tout her emergence as the top challenger to Romney. OK, but what happens if Perry announces? Can she translate artificial support in a made-up event with an incomplete ballot into genuine votes in a competitive race?
Even if Bachmann wins the Iowa caucuses in January or February, what does it mean? Probably not much, as a matter of fact. The Iowa caucuses just aren’t that important anymore. There’s a rich tradition of Iowans choosing someone in the caucuses who goes on to lose the nomination to someone else. In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa, but Sen. John McCain of Arizona won the GOP nomination. In 1980, George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in Iowa, but Reagan won the nomination and served two terms in the White House before Bush got another chance. Of course, Bush promptly lost Iowa to Bob Dole in 1988, but won the nomination. The result was the same on the Democratic side that year, with Dick Gephardt winning the state but losing the nomination to Michael Dukakis.
In fact, the most compelling argument for Iowa is that it allows underfunded and lesser-known candidates to rise because of the premium on retail politics -- face-to-face meetings with voters who actually want to hear about issues. Jimmy Carter is the poster boy for this argument. But remember this: Jimmy Carter actually finished second in Iowa in 1976 -- behind a slate of uncommitted candidates. That result spoke volumes more about the quality of candidates in the field, perhaps, than it did about the virtues of Jimmy Carter.
None of this is meant to dis Iowa. It is meant to suggest that the straw poll is irrelevant and that it wouldn’t be a bad thing -- for the country or for the political parties -- for Iowa’s caucuses to lose their coveted status in the presidential selection process.
Staying the course actually hurts the GOP. Republicans who participate in Iowa tend to be more conservative than voters in the nation as a whole. So every four years we see candidates run to the right as they try to do well in Iowa, only to pivot back toward the center later in the primary process and in the fall as they try to appeal to independents and Democrats. Or we see the party turn away from a staunch conservative winner in the Hawkeye State for a candidate with a better chance to win in November.
The fact is, there aren’t enough Republicans to win a national election without the help of a lot of independents and some Democrats. The GOP would be wise to adopt a primary election process that recognizes this.
The first step would be moving away from letting Iowa go first, cycle after cycle. Changing the party rules for 2016 would be a bold stroke. It’s long overdue.