When Senator Paul Simon of Illinois was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, one of his first stops was in the backyard of a residence in Wartburg, Iowa. About 100 people had assembled to hear him. The first question: What’s up in Namibia?
Iowa is different. It was in 1988 and it is now. Nowhere else in the universe would a Third World country be the subject of the first question for a candidate for the White House. So Iowa is an odd place to have the first votes cast in a presidential race. Yet that’s what will occur on January 3 in Republican caucuses around the state.
But never mind Iowa. The can-didates, the political community, and the media pay a dizzying amount of attention to the state, though the results of the caucuses rarely matter. They aren’t predictive. The winner doesn’t usually capture the nomination, much less the presidency. Ronald Reagan came in second in 1980 and went on to become a two-term president. John McCain essentially skipped Iowa in 2008 and won the nomination anyway.
There are exceptions. Since Jimmy Carter in 1980, incumbent presidents have been unopposed and have swept the caucuses effortlessly. George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008 won Iowa, the nomination, and the White House.
In all likelihood, though, they would have won even if they’d lost Iowa. And having won the caucuses, they both proceeded to lose the next contest, the New Hampshire primary. Bush had a juggernaut of a campaign and was too well financed for the caucuses to matter in his stroll to the nomination. As for Obama, he defeated Hillary Clinton by splitting the primaries and prevailing in caucus states other than Iowa that Clinton ignored. Iowa helped, but it was far from decisive.
Bush and Obama are hardly trivial exceptions to the rule that Iowa is irrelevant. But compared with the one-hit wonders who disappeared after Iowa, and the Iowa losers who triumphed elsewhere, their success looms small.
Among Democrats, “uncommitted” ran ahead of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Dick Gephardt won in 1988, Simon was second, and the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, finished third. Four years later, favorite son Tom Harkin won, then went nowhere. Among Republicans, the 2008 winner was Mike Huckabee, now a Fox News television personality.
Iowa victors who gain their party’s nomination have a distinct habit of losing general elections. Democrats John Kerry, Al Gore, and Walter Mondale are members of this club. Republicans George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole also belong.
And let’s not forget the ballyhooed Ames straw poll in which Republican presidential candidates compete. It’s a media swarmfest that tests a candidate’s ability to drag voters to Ames on a Saturday in August prior to election year. The winners: the elder Bush in 1979, Pat Robertson in 1987, Bob Dole and Phil Gramm (tied) in 1995, the younger Bush in 1999, Mitt Romney in 2007, and Michele Bachmann in 2011. Only Bush junior won the White House, though Bachmann still technically has a chance.
Like the straw vote, the caucuses are tailor-made for candidates with little chance of becoming president. The broad complaint against Iowa is that it’s unrepresentative of the country, with few minorities and lots of rural voters. Indeed it is unrepresentative, but so are New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first two primary states.
What makes the caucuses unique are two peculiarities. Iowa has a robust pro-life movement that overlaps with Christian conservatives, including homeschoolers, who are politically active and well organized. This powerful coalition was responsible for catapulting Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, to victory in 2007.
This year, social conservatives are divided among three candidates—Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann. Santorum got the endorsement last week of Bob Vander Plaats, the influential president of t he Family Leader. In a TV ad aimed at social conservatives, Perry says he’s not embarrassed to call himself a Christian.
The second trait, which Iowa shares with several other states in the Midwest, is a legacy of isolationism. This is more pronounced on the Democratic side, but it has manifested itself this year in tolerance among Iowa Republicans for Ron Paul’s fervent isolationist views and support for a diminished American role in the world, at least militarily.
In a televised debate in Sioux City on December 15, Paul didn’t sugarcoat his foreign policy pitch. He waved his arms while claiming there’s “no evidence” Iran is building nuclear weapons. If his harangue caused a dip in his support, it didn’t show up in polls. He has also suggested the United States provoked the 9/11 terrorist attacks by interfering in Middle East countries.
Paul is the perfect candidate for the caucuses. His prospects of winning the Republican nomination are poor. But he appeals to conservatives impressed by his libertarianism, his plan to cut $1 trillion in spending in his first year as president, and his desire to shutter the Federal Reserve. Paul has focused his campaign on Iowa at the expense of other states. And starting with his 2008 presidential bid, he’s built a devoted Iowa following, loaded with non-Republicans.
Republican leaders are increasingly worried about Paul. Should he win, “it would make the caucuses mostly irrelevant if not entirely irrelevant,” veteran Iowa Republican Becky Beach told Politico. Nothing new about that.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.