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The Social Conservative Primary

Why Iowa matters.

11:00 PM, Dec 21, 2007 • By JEFFREY BELL
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For America's social conservative movement, 1988 was a milestone year. It was the first election cycle in which conservative social issues (led by the Willie Horton prison furlough issue) clearly turned a general presidential election from one party to the other, with minimal help from economic and foreign-policy issue clusters. It was the first time that social conservatives made a big splash as a distinct voting stream in Republican nomination politics. And because the stunning second-place showing of televangelist Pat Robertson came in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, it marked the first cycle in which the battle for Iowa, already rising in importance in both parties as the major "winnowing" event prior to the New Hampshire primary, took on added significance as an early indicator of where social conservatives were likely to go in a GOP nomination fight. After 1988, the Republican caucus of Iowa became (among its other attributes) the social conservative primary.

In terms of foreshadowing the national nominees, 1988 was Iowa's worst year ever. The winners of each party's caucuses that year, Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Richard Gephardt, fell far short of the nomination, while the third-place candidates, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, went on to win their party's nominations. Since 1996, though, the state's record is perfect: The winner of Iowa has won his party's nomination--in 1996 and 2000 on the Republican side, in 2000 and 2004 for the Democrats.

Why? For the Democrats, the explanation is simple, and explains much of the urgency felt in the Clinton and Obama camps today. For well-funded Democrats, Iowa generally leads to victory in New Hampshire, and thus to the nomination. In 1988, Gephardt was broke after winning Iowa and unable to mount a well-funded campaign in New Hampshire or subsequent primaries. The one true exception to the Democratic rule was 1984 Iowa winner Walter Mondale, who was upset by Sen. Gary Hart eight days later in New Hampshire before fighting back to win the nomination in subsequent states. All other well-funded Democrats who prevailed in Iowa--Jimmy Carter in both 1976 and 1980, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004--went on to win New Hampshire and the nomination.

For Republicans, the significance of Iowa is more complex, and a bit surprising. In contested GOP races, Iowa and New Hampshire have never voted for the same candidate, unless you count Gerald Ford's wins over Ronald Reagan in 1976. I don't, because as a Reagan staffer in that campaign I can't remember any serious focus on Iowa. Jimmy Carter and his strategists famously put Iowa on the Democratic map in that 1976 cycle, but for both the Reagan and Ford camps, Iowa was trivial and (for the last time) New Hampshire was still the only early game in town.

In all subsequent contests featuring GOP battles in Iowa and New Hampshire, every winner of Iowa went on to lose the New Hampshire primary. These were George H.W. Bush in 1980, Dole in both 1988 and 1996, and George W. Bush in 2000. When not many days ago state polls appeared to show Mitt Romney in good shape to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, a number of Republican analysts with a respect for history installed him as a strong favorite to win the nomination despite his then-anemic national numbers. A Republican who could for the first time run the table in those two vastly different yet very ornery, very self-important states, they reasoned, would be very well positioned to become the eventual nominee.

Now that the polls have changed and the Republican contests in Iowa and New Hampshire have (at least at this writing) two different leaders, Mike Huckabee in Iowa and Romney in New Hampshire, it is natural to ask which state this year, assuming the two differ with each other for a fifth straight GOP cycle, is more likely to foreshadow the eventual nominee.

There is a chronological answer. Through 1988, winning New Hampshire trumped winning in Iowa. But in 1996 and 2000, the two Republican battles since then, winning in Iowa trumped winning in New Hampshire. The winners of the New Hampshire primary in 1996 and 2000, Pat Buchanan and John McCain, went on to lose the GOP nomination.
The winners of Iowa, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000, survived New Hampshire defeats and went on to win the nomination.

Two elections going directly against the previous pattern carry little or no mathematical weight. Iowa's seeming emergence over New Hampshire as the Republicans' center of gravity among early states could be a random event, explainable by peculiarities of candidate and cycle.

But 1988 as the last instance of the old pro-New Hampshire order, as well as the year in which the Robertson showing in Iowa established social conservatives as key targets for future caucuses, is suggestive of the sea change in Republican politics--toward the South and toward social-issue conservative politics.

This is true especially when Iowa and New Hampshire are coupled with a third early state, South Carolina. The South Carolina presidential primary was instituted in 1980 and immediately emerged as a kind of tie-breaker between Iowa and New Hampshire. And as a tie-breaker its record is perfect. Every winner of the South Carolina Republican primary went on to win the Republican nomination, beginning with Ronald Reagan's defeat of John Connally in 1980 and continuing with George H.W. Bush's clinching victory in 1988. In those two cycles, New Hampshire victors Reagan and Bush prevailed in South Carolina over the Iowa winners as well as late entries like Connally.

But in 1996 and 2000, in mild defiance of the laws of political momentum, the winner in Iowa proved predictive of the winner in South Carolina, despite intervening defeat or defeats for the Iowa winner. In 1996 Iowa winner Bob Dole lost not just New Hampshire but Delaware and Arizona as well, yet won South Carolina going away and cruised from there to the nomination.

It's safe to say there are few states further apart culturally than Iowa and South Carolina. The one thing they have in common is the importance of social conservatives in the Republican parties of those states. Social conservatives these days enjoy firm but mild dominance over moderates in the Iowa GOP. Within the South Carolina GOP, social moderates and social liberals are said by some to exist but in numerical terms are non-factors. This makes it even more striking that it is the South Carolina primary that has been most predictive of Republican nominations from its rollout in 1980 to the present. And more understandable that since 1988, with the rise of social conservatism as a distinct, analyzable voting stream in the Republican nominating process, it is the Iowa caucuses, not the New Hampshire primary, that is predictive of victory in the (so far) always decisive South Carolina primary.

At this writing, three Republican presidential candidates are still spending money to try to prevail in Iowa: Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. Interestingly, each of them personifies a distinct strategy for winning the social conservative primary in that state.

Huckabee is an identity candidate, somewhat reminiscent of Robertson but far more politically knowledgeable and sophisticated than the televangelist. He is a committed social conservative, but seldom speaks at length about social issues in his speeches. Phrases like "Christian leader" have a way of popping up in his television commercials.

Romney has an issues strategy. He has checked the social-conservative boxes on issues ranging from abortion to the Federal Marriage Amendment to embryo-destructive stem cell research. He is less reluctant than most Republicans to talk unapologetically about these issues, particularly given his Massachusetts gubernatorial experiences on judicially imposed same-sex marriage and the ins and outs of stem-cell research.

Thompson is concentrating on an endorsement strategy. His biggest coup was winning the support of the National Right to Life Committee, which brought with it many of the organization's state chapters. But he has won unexpected backing in other quarters, such as from Judge Paul Pressler, a key conservative figure among Southern Baptists who has been willing to associate fellow Southern Baptist Huckabee with the theological liberalism Pressler was instrumental in marginalizing in the 1980s. Almost unnoticed, Thompson also snagged the highest-ranking Iowa Republican officeholder to endorse a candidate in the caucuses, influential Congressman Steve King from strongly conservative western Iowa.

As an overwhelming Iowa and national front-runner in the 2000 cycle, George W. Bush was able to pursue elements of all three approaches. He checked the right social-conservative boxes, but was far less voluble about them than Romney. He and strategist Karl Rove hosted dozens of social conservative leaders after flying them to Austin, reassuring these guests about his social conservatism and winning robust numbers of endorsements. And his most famous foray into identity politics was his designation, in the Des Moines Register debate the month before the caucus, of Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher. This proved a pivotal moment in his 41-30 victory in Iowa over his closest challenger, publisher Steve Forbes, who also campaigned in 2000 as a social conservative.

All three strategies have met their share of pitfalls. Thompson has done well in endorsements, but sometimes seems to go out of his way to show his lack of interest in the social conservative agenda. He is the only candidate of the three to oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment, backed also by President Bush and designed to keep federal and state judges from imposing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. And asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press if he would campaign on the Republicans' pro-life platform, his answer was a flat "No."

Huckabee's vulnerability has been not on social issues but on other issues. He called fairly often for higher taxes in his Arkansas years and castigated the Bush administration on Iraq for "arrogance" and a "bunker mentality" in a recent Foreign Affairs article that seemed not just surprisingly dovish but jarringly out of date given the stunning success (and near-universal Republican approval) enjoyed by Gen. David Petraeus.

Romney's Iowa campaign was initially staggered but avoided a knockdown in its first real crisis, the Huckabee surge to first place in Iowa based on identity politics. As a Mormon, the last thing Romney needs is an identity-driven debate with a Southern Baptist seeking evangelical votes. Romney's Texas A&M speech calling for tolerance was well received, particularly by social conservatives who agreed with his attack on secularism. One of the few jarring elements in the speech, his commitment to Jesus Christ as son of God and savior of mankind, was undoubtedly an indirect but pointed response to the not-too-subtle Christian identity politics of Huckabee.

Even in his television commercials attacking Huckabee on immigration and crime, Romney carefully reminds voters of the centrality of his issue strategy in the first part of the ads when he states his agreement with Huckabee on social issues like life and marriage.

In preparation for the transition from Iowa to New Hampshire, some press reports suggest Romney will soon phase out his emphasis on social issues and begin talking about his successes in business consulting and in the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Two points leap out of the pages of the New York Times in which this speculation recently appeared. Romney, the devout Mormon accused of opportunistic ideological flip-flops, seems surprisingly determined to return thematically to a discussion of the past, which invites further arguments about his own ideological and religious identity. One of the best things about an issue strategy, social or otherwise, is that it can turn voters' attention to a debate about the future, rather than the immediate past of Bush unpopularity, Republican congressional incompetence, as well as Romney's biggest vulnerabilities in, say, South Carolina: Mormonism and issue evolution.

Alone of all the Republican candidates, Romney has recognized the centrality Iowa has achieved in his party's presidential politics. But treating it as an isolated problem to overcome before moving on to New Hampshire, rather than as a proxy for the socially conservative center of gravity of the party as a whole, is to mistake effects for causes. This is underlined by the simple fact that Huckabee's Iowa surge coincided with a Huckabee surge all over the country, but especially in the South, and more than anywhere else in the archetypal Republican barometer of the modern era, South Carolina.

Winning Iowa is important, as both Romney and Huckabee know. But riveting as the horse race will be on January 3, the second most important thing is what lessons the winner and his top pursuer take from Iowa into New Hampshire and the rest of the states that so quickly follow.

Jeffrey Bell, a Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is writing Social Conservatism: the Movement that Polarized American Politics, to be published in 2009 by Encounter Books.