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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.