Iowa Just Doesn’t Matter

We are just a month away from the most meaningful election ever known to mankind, the Iowa caucuses.  These early caucuses make or break presidential candidates, as everyone knows.  Here is a typical quote from “The American Thinker” who bills himself as a former Republican insider:

Here’s a news flash.  The Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary will not matter this year, at least not in the way they’ve mattered every four years for as long as I can remember.  You can take that to the bank.

Except that the Iowa caucuses have ALWAYS mostly never mattered, especially on the Republican side.  Let’s take a look at the list of winners and losers from Wikipedia, we will start with the Republicans, with some side notes from me, for historical perspective.  My notes will be in bold.

Republican Iowa Caucus Results

This was viewed as a big win for the upstart Reagan, but Ford went on to win the nomination, but lose the general election.

Wait, Reagan didn’t win Iowa?  That’s right he didn’t, but went on to win the nomination anyway.

Finally, Reagan wins Iowa.

Wait, the sitting Vice President of supposedly the most popular president ever didn’t even win Iowa?  But he did go on to win the nomination, of course.  Note the strong showing of Pat Robertson, the first to run for National Pastor.

Bush wins!  And then loses the general election.

His strong showing in Iowa was going to propel Buchanan to the nomination, except that it didn’t.  Notice the beginnings of the Republican clown car.

Iowa finally votes for an eventual nominee in a contested year.  But Bush was pretty much an establishment candidate.

No surprise here.

The  Republican clown car keeps growing. Iowa missed by a mile by voting for the guy running for National Pastor.

The next instance of the clown car, once again Iowa goes for a guy who wants to be National Pastor, but at least they get it half right.

Now let’s see how the Democrats do.

Muskie pulls out a big win by tying “Uncommitted” but goes unnominated.

The Iowa mythmaker!  Unknown Jimmy Carter pulls out a second place finish and uses the new found fame to go on to the nomination and the Presidency.  

Kennedy’s strong showing foreshadows Carter’s electoral weakness, but everyone already knew that without Iowa.

As a former Vice President, Mondale was no surprise here.  Gary Hart later self destructed anway.

A bit of a surprise win for Iowa neighbor Gephardt, who also went unnominated.  Neighbor Paul Simon rode his strong showing to an appearance on Saturday Night Live, but not the nomination either.

Bill Clinton’s big break out win — NOT.  Harkin was governor of Iowa at the time.

Big surprise!

Another big suprise.

Kerry was the establishment candidate.  Edwards rode his strong showing to the Vice Presidential nomination.  Howard Dean screamed himself out of the race after this.

This also fits the Jimmy Carter narrative.  Political newcomer defeats establishment candidates and goes on to the nomination and wins the Presidency.

No surprise here.

Only twice in 10 elections, on the Republican side, did Iowa provide early victories for candidates looking to break out, but both were establishment candidates, Bob Dole and George W. Bush.  After W, Iowa Republicans have gone looney tunes and tend to vote for people running for National Pastor rather than president.  Their choices are not only out of step with the electorate as a whole, they aren’t even mainstream for Republicans.

On the Democratic side, there have been two genuine breakout candidates after winning in Iowa, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.  Democratic voters in Iowa are closer the national electorate, but the predictive value of a win there is not very strong.

The reason for the low predictive value for Iowa is twofold.  First the caucuses are “closed” in that they are only open to registered members of each of the parties.  A majority of Iowans register as independents, so they can’t participate.  Even among the registered party members, participation in the caucuses is only about 20%, so the caucuses are an unrepresentative sample of an unrepresentative sample.

So, here is what I think we should look for in Iowa.

There could possibly be a meaningful result on the Democratic side if Sanders were to win.  A big win there could give him a  pretty good chance he could follow Carter’s and Obama’s footsteps all the way to the White House.  More likely though, is a significant win for Hilary Clinton.

On the Republican side, a win in Iowa could very well be political suicide.  Turns out there really isn’t any future in running for National Pastor.  Are you listening, Ted Cruz?

 

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2 thoughts on “Iowa Just Doesn’t Matter

  1. You’re quite right about Iowa Caucus results not being a general election predictor. That’s not why it matters, and it never was. Iowa matters as a place to unmask unworthy contenders and test everyone’s capacity for authenticity. I believe that’s why Trump’s numbers are fading there, even though he might win the nomination. Because of the structure of their procedures, the Iowans are better able to spot a BS-er. It’s early in the cycle, and they require candidates to deal with small groups of voters face-to-face over extended periods of time WITHOUT HANDLERS. No other place in the entire primary process forces them to show their real selves, having to talk and eat with regular people (as opposed to hand-picked large contributors), and look them in the eye. As the years go by, with more elections being all about soundbites and spin, I’ve learned to appreciate any situation that makes it harder for them to lie and pretend abilities they don’t possess.

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    • I will only disagree slightly that the process in Iowa just creates another kind of artificial situation that most politicians are quite adept at adapting to. This kind of artificiality is parodied as kissing babies and hanging out in diners — which proves how “authentic” they are. Spinning and acting are part of what it means to be a politician.

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