Why Iowa matters (though we’re not sure yet for whom it will matter most)


With Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney neck-in-neck in the wee hours on Wednesday, looks like the Iowa caucus is up for grabs. At the moment, 18 votes separate these men. Can’t wait to see what’s being reported later this morning.

It’s popular to assert that Iowa, the presidential race’s first caucus, doesn’t necessarily matter. Well, if you believe that, ask Rudy Giuliani, whose candidacy was obliterated in 2008 after he was (mis) advised to skip the caucus and its follow-along-at-the-heels little brother, New Hampshire.

Figuring he could better leverage his energy and resources into Florida four years ago, Rudy skipped the first two contests. He went overnight from being a lead Republican contender to being the September 11 hero who was irrelevant to the presidential contest.

On the one hand, not every Iowa caucus winner has gone on to secure his party’s nomination – far from it. A glance at Wikipedia’s entry on the Iowa caucuses shows that, indeed, sometimes Iowa caucus winners do not go on to become their party’s standard bearers. In 1992, for instance, the democratic winner was Tom Harkin (who?) and in 1988, it was Dick Gephardt.

On the Republican side, it was Mike Huckabee in 2008 – but the nomination, of course, went to John McCain. Also,  in 1988 the Iowa caucus winner was Bob Dole, and that year he did not get his party’s nomination (on the other hand, he also won the Iowa caucus in 1996, the year he did get the nod).

However, a close examination of the history of the Iowa caucus suggests that, in recent decades, the Iowa caucus has become a stronger indicator as to who becomes the nominee: in the last ten presidential contests, both republicans and democrats chose the winner of the Iowa caucus to be their party’s standard bearer  six out of ten times. Within the past five races, the ratio increased slightly, with both sides choosing the Iowa caucus winner four times out of five. That means that the trend over the past couple of decades is toward the winner of the Iowa caucus becoming a slightly stronger indicator of who the nominee will be.

Here, in my humble opinion, is the reason for the trend: five races ago, in the early 90’s, cable news’ 24-hour a day cycle really started taking off and the nature of coverage changed. In other words, around the time media started to exponentially proliferate, the early caucuses and primaries started becoming a bigger deal. It is no wonder: when the campaigns started getting heavier coverage earlier and earlier, and there were more stations and networks reporting – and repeating – the results around the clock, these early contests started becoming more determinative. To paraphrase Orwell: repeat anything (such as, “So-and-so is the winner” over and over again, and it becomes truth. Or at least is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy).

In terms of each party picking its nominee, Iowa and New Hampshire really matter. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is another discussion. On the one hand, residents of small states get to have a disproportionate influence. On the other hand, the grassroots nature of the contests in these states allows for the theoretical (and in this case, actual) possibility of a dark horse candidate coming center stage, even if he or she lacks a lot of money. In the case of Santorum, what he lacked in funding he reportedly made up for in sweat: he logged more time in Iowa than any other candidate, visiting all 99 counties. So despite his comparative lack of money, his hard work paid off.

If history is an indicator, this caucus will matter. And either way, this was a great night for two good men. Romney is, in the eyes of this commentator, the far more electable candidate in the general election. In the words of former Republican Jewish Coalition head Sam Fox, Romney is a solid supporter of Israel who is “a success at everything he has ever touched.”  Santorum is also a great supporter of Israel with a tremendous grasp of middle east issues, especially regarding Israel and Iran. Either, in my opinion, would make a fine President.

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