Does Iowa Mean Nothing to the GOP?
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.