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The Social Conservative Primary

Why Iowa matters.

11:00 PM, Dec 21, 2007 • By JEFFREY BELL
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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.