In addition to the article about the growing possibility that Mitt Romney may skip the 2012 Iowa Caucuses which appeared on this website yesterday, Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic also wrote a story about lessons learned in Iowa during the 2008 caucuses. The point that Ambinder makes in his article is that, unless you are beloved by conservative Christians, candidates would be better off skipping the first in the nation caucuses.
These types of articles are nothing new. It just seems as if they are occurring much earlier than in previous years. The problem I have with articles like Ambinder’s is that the data doesn’t back up the claim his story makes. We all know that Mike Huckabee won the 2008 caucuses, but he didn’t win it with 50 percent of the vote. He won with less than 35 percent. After reading stories like this, one would think that more establishment candidates like Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani have no base of support in Iowa. Yet, those four candidates combined made up 55 percent of the total vote in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
When looking back at the 2008 caucuses, the one thing that leaps off of the page is that Mike Huckabee ended up being the main option for values voters who participated in the Iowa caucuses. That’s not to say the some Christian conservatives didn’t support Romney, Thompson, and McCain, but most of them drifted towards their natural home with Huckabee. Had Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo remained in the race come caucus time, the support of the state’s social conservatives would have been split.
After reading countless articles on the Iowa caucuses, you might think that the past winners were Pat Robertson who finished 2nd, 12 points back in 1988, Pat Buchanan who finished 2nd, 3 points back in 1996, or Alan Keyes who finished 3rd, 27 points back in 2000. It’s a disservice that the traditional media continues to paint the caucuses as some sort of Christian revival contest. Christian conservative candidates have done well in the caucuses, but many times their voting-block has been split between multiple candidates, which has prevented them from winning.
Before 2008, the only candidates who had won the caucuses were Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole(twice), and George W. Bush. The only time a Christian conservative candidate has won the caucuses was in 2008 when Mike Huckabee was the consensus candidate for values voters.
Mike Huckabee’s victory in the caucuses was no doubt a surprise to many, but especially so for the traditional media. However, Huckabee’s victory can be chalked-up to his outstanding communications skills, fantastic timing, and a lot of luck, not just the wide support of Christian conservatives.
Huckabee’s communication skills allowed him to outshine his opponents like Tancredo and Brownback. These skills also allowed him to hold his own in most of the presidential debates, making him a more credible candidate than the others who were in the second tier.
Many thought that Huckabee was finished before the Ames Straw Poll. There were rumors that he might return to Arkansas for a run for the U.S. Senate, and even people within his own campaign urged him not to participate in the straw poll because they thought it would bring an end to his campaign. Huckabee finished a surprising second to Mitt Romney, and his high finish pushed Brownback out of the race.
Lady luck was also on Huckabee’s side. Before the Straw Poll, Huckabee staffers were seen throwing away supporter cards because these particular people said that they would go to the event but needed a ride. While the Romney campaign was meticulously calling through the list of previous caucus attendees for almost a year, the Huckabee campaign couldn’t afford to even purchase the list from the Republican Party of Iowa. Instead, the Huckabee campaign sent lists of registered Republicans for its supporters to call through. Huckabee’s campaign was able to succeed because its supporters were passionate about their candidate, not because it was a well oiled political machine.
Romney, on the other hand, was a victim of his own early success. As I’ve written before, the Romney campaign plan was excellent. If there is anything to critique from the spring and summer of 2007, it would be how boastful the campaign had become. They had good reasons to celebrate their early accomplishments, but all of their saber rattling scared away their main competition – John McCain.
When John McCain sought exile from Iowa in the mountains of New Hampshire, Romney was all of the sudden seen as the moderate candidate in the caucuses. Romney’s past statements on social issues like abortion and the footage from his U.S. Senate debate with Ted Kennedy haunted his campaign. This also prevented him for garnering the support of many Christian conservatives in Iowa.
Romney’s campaign then went into its shell in the final months leading up to the caucuses. Instead of participating in a prime-time Fox News debate, they opted for a weekday mid-afternoon debate with the Des Moines Register. At the time that the Romney campaign made its decision, they were confident that they would win Iowa. Yet, when the debate took place in late December, Huckabee was surging and Romney needed to beat up his opponent. It is likely that he would have had that opportunity in a Fox News debate, but the rules and procedures of the Des Moines Register debate were strange and didn’t allow candidates the opportunity to do much of anything. The Register debate was so bad that many in the national media laughed on- air about it.
Despite all of that, Romney could have still won the caucuses had his campaign reached out and found new people to participate in the caucus process. Only 118,000 Republicans participated in the 2008 caucuses. Despite setting a record for caucus attendance, the 118,000 caucus goers means that almost 500,000 registered Republicans didn’t participate. That’s a big pool of potential voters for campaigns to go after, yet very few do. In addition to registered Republicans, Romney could have also sought the support from the thousands of Mormons who live in Iowa. In a low turnout caucus, finding small pockets of support can mean the difference between winning and losing.
I think the notion that some candidates should skip Iowa because of the state’s Christian conservatives is complete nonsense. I think any type of candidate can find enough support to win if they are willing to think outside of the box and try to identify as many supporters as it will realistically take to win.
The one thing that I have learned in my time in Iowa politics is that Iowans will give candidates a fair shake no matter who they are. I’ve seen evidence of that already this year. Hundreds of people have turned out to see George Pataki, John Ensign, and Rick Santorum at the American Future Fund lecture series. While Ensign developed some serious character problems after his visit, both Pataki and Santorum were well received even though they represent opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Iowans take their role in the caucuses very seriously. To think that they blindly vote for candidates based on social issues alone is insulting. If these national pundits really want to have a better understanding of Iowa, they should come to Iowa and follow the candidates from event to event during the next caucus season. If they really listened to the questions that people ask and listened to what’s on people’s minds, they would learn a lot about Iowa and the caucuses.
I think they would be surprised at the diversity of questions asked by Iowa’s politically savvy electorate. And they might actually learn something.
Note: Kay Henderson makes a great point in a blog post from yesterday. While McCain didn’t focus on Iowa, he visited the state on a regular basis. To say he skipped Iowa like he did in 2000 would be a stretch.
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