Does Iowa Mean Nothing to the GOP?

Iowa Caucuses Noting that the Republican winner of the Iowa Caucuses almost never goes on the win the nomination, Thomas Schaller argues that the real winners may be those who skipped them.

Though hard to believe now, in 1980 Ronald Reagan lost this heartiest of heartland states to George H.W. Bush, who, eight years later as the incumbent vice president and his party’s heir apparent, promptly lost Iowa to Bob Dole. Even the current President Bush’s 2000 victory meant so little that Senator John McCain squashed him in New Hampshire the following week. The notion of an Iowa bounce for Republican hopefuls is a myth that should have been buried in a time capsule long ago next to the Phil Gramm for President paraphernalia.


The 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses may be remembered as an exercise in electoral futility, or at least vanity, for these two former governors [Huckabee and Romney -ed.]. The nomination could very well go neither of them, which means that the three candidates who essentially skipped Iowa — McCain and Rudy Giuliani by conscious choice, and Thompson as an indirect result of his lackluster and lazy campaign — may have been wise to get out of the way of the mutually self-destructive Huckabee-Romney donnybrook.

McCain, in fact, could become the effective “winner” in Iowa. Consider that the Arizona senator bounced up to 13 percent in the final Register poll, despite investing little resources here, and would make headlines if he climbs closer to 20 percent in the final results. Whatever McCain’s showing in Iowa, if Huckabee holds on to win, Romney will be damaged headed into his face-off with McCain in New Hampshire.

McCain and Giuliani were wise to skip Iowa, not because it hasn’t historically been predictive, but because they were unlikely to be competitive there. While I don’t see Huckabee or Romney getting the nomination regardless of the Iowa result, fighting to win there was good strategy for both of them.

It’s true that both men have been bruised by their Iowa face-off while McCain and Giuliani have emerged unscathed. Even so, this was their most likely path to first tier status and momentum going into New Hampshire.

Romney was able to flood the zone with advertising owing to his deep pockets, scaring off most of the other candidates. Huckabee, by contrast, had no money and therefore needed to rely on the retail-level campaigning that Iowa is known for in order to boost his name recognition and ability to attract donors.

In previous years, the Iowa winner frequently went on to lose to a more established candidate. That could well happen again. But that’s like pointing out that teams who got the last wildcard spot seldom win the Super Bowl. Iowa gives underdogs a chance, not a guarantee of victory.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    In previous years, the Iowa winner frequently went on to lose to a more established candidate.

    Indeed, winning IA and NH seems a lot like winning the Heisman Trophy… those that do don’t often go on to a huge NFL career – at least not initially – because of a) increased expectations and b) increased attention from their opponents. Both pitfalls also apply to the political arena.

    I too think McCain will be the ‘last man standing’ from a lot of this, but I think it’s largely because the GOP quite literally has no candidate who is really electable (though McC has the fewest people who truly despise him).

  2. FireWolf says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with both of you James, and legion.

    Iowa is predominately a liberal bastion/blue state. For a GOP candidate to win in this state may go a long way to show a viable electable likable GOP candidate to the Dems.

    Granted, Romney had money to throw around in Iowa, but just because Guliani, and McCain stayed away doesn’t exactly make them smarter people.

    Legion, I disagree that McCain will be the last man standing and that the GOP doesn’t have anyone else who is electable. That’s quite laughable considering that McCain isn’t exactly the most loved GOP member.

    I believe I was reading an American Thinker article from a writer who stated “I can name 6 things that should make you run away from every candidate”. That to me is someone who is interested in politics and votes for the lesser of two evils.

    All of us should be that well versed and stop listening to the talking points that pundits, so called experts are spewing at you ad nauseum.

    Look at the results from Iowa tonight, and if your people didn’t do so well, that doesn’t mean they’re out, just that they have more to prove if they are to land a nomination.

    If anything, it means that people like Ron Paul will run as independents.

  3. JohnG says:

    From watching focus groups on the various news channels, Iowans seems to vote for the guy who panders to them personally. In one group, in the face of accurate attacks on Huckabee’s illegal immigration positions (which he held all through the debates), the people watching simply refused to believe the ads. There was a lot of hostility towards those who weren’t campaigning heavily in the state and towards Thompson for not pandering, nevermind their positions on anything.

    You win Iowa by brown nosing in person, and issues seem to be less important despite what Iowans say. That doesn’t necessarily transfer to voters in other states where there is no expectation for in-person butt kissing and so voters have to look for something other than how friendly the candidate is to him and how the candidate will see to each indivdual voters individual needs.

  4. legion says:

    That’s quite laughable considering that McCain isn’t exactly the most loved GOP member.

    Um, I never said he was the most loved, only that he was the least hated – a vital difference when deciding which primary candidate to hold the nose & vote for.

    I like JohnG’s reasoning, tho – I hadn’t considered the brown-nosing aspect to the IA and NH campaigns. Perhaps making oneself attractive to those crowds turns the rest of the country off.

  5. BobM says:

    Agree 100% with JohnG. Iowans appear to behave like spoiled children, shunning candidates who don’t spend enough time paying personal attention to each one of them.

    Anyone who is truly interested in the future of this country should spend time examining the ideas, positions and plans of each of the candidates, and make up their own mind as to which is best for them. Supporting someone because he’s an evangelical, while ignoring his record and his inability to formulate even a rudimentary approach to foreign policy is myopic and nothing more than a self-reassuring statement of one’s religious beliefs, not an informed decision with the country’s best interests in mind.

    For me, the candidate with the most comprehensive and well-thought-out plans for our future is Fred Thompson. Given, he’s not a traditional campaigner. Perhaps that’s because he’s not interested in BEING someone important. It appears he’s far more interested in DOING something important, and making our country stronger, safer and more prosperous. He’s not in it for himself, but for what he can do for all of us, with a vision toward making a difference for generations to come.

    Check it all out for yourselves. Think about what’s best for all of us. Be honest for once and really vote on the issues, not just cast a ballot that makes you feel good about affirming what belief group you’re a part of.