Former Iowa Speaker of the House, Chris Rants, recently wrote an editorial for the Sioux City Journal in which he claims that the Iowa Caucuses will cease to exist if Sarah Palin wins them in 2012. I respect Rants’ opinion, but this line of thinking is what we have all come to expect from those who backed Mitt Romney in 2008.
Rants argues that the caucuses have become too conservative and that caucus goers expect purity from their candidates. It’s easy to see how he might come to this conclusion after watching Mike Huckabee come out of nowhere to crush the well-oiled Romney machine by nine points.
While it is true that Huckabee was able to win the support of Fair Taxers, home schoolers, evangelicals, and pro-life activists, Rants forgets that Huckabee was able to do so because he was the only viable social conservative running. Huckabee had the luxury of owning entire voter constituencies to himself. Had a candidate like Sam Brownback made it to caucus day, the social conservative vote would have been split to some extent.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney was haunted by the things that he said while trying to get elected to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Romney followed the advice of people like Rants, and instead of running for president as a strong fiscal conservative who took liberal positions on social issues, he tried to morph into a conservative candidate that he thought could win the caucuses.
Romney’s 2008 strategy failed because it took his best assets of being a job creator, a financial whiz, and a turn-around CEO off the table. Instead, Romney traveled the state trying to convince Iowans that he was a social conservative. Iowans saw right through his charade.
Rants also seems to forget that it was Huckabee who finished second to John McCain in electoral votes. Huckabee wasn’t just an Iowa fluke, he almost won South Carolina, and had we won that contest, he might have been the Republican nominee. In all, Huckabee won nine states. Huckabee’s ability to communicate to everyday people is what propelled him in Iowa and in other states across the country.
In his article, Rants also suggests that candidates like Romney, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour might not participate in the caucuses because they don’t see a path to victory. That’s a fair criticism, but there is nothing we can do about it. While these candidates might prefer to stay away from a conservative state like Iowa, they will do so at a cost.
People seem to act like candidates skipping Iowa is some sort of new phenomenon. Certain candidates skip it every time. Reagan skipped once and McCain skipped twice. Did that make the caucuses irrelevant? Of course not. While Reagan went on to win the nomination, he selected Bush, the 1980 caucus winner, to be his running mate. McCain was basically one and done in 2000, and the only reason his 2008 strategy worked is because his Republican opponents took pity on him and provided the opportunity for McCain get up off the mat after his campaign imploded in the summer of 2007.
Let’s also not forget that Rudy Giuliani skipped so many early contests in 2008 that, by the time he actually put up a fight in Florida, he was an afterthought. Giuliani might have avoided a contested loss, but he forgot about all of the media attention he was passing up.
Even if you concede Iowa to a conservative candidate, you then have to confront that candidate is states like South Carolina and Florida. Like Huckabee in 2008, it is likely that, after Iowa, there will only be one viable social conservative in the race. So either you deal with them early in Iowa, or after the media has made a big deal out of their Iowa victory.
The real danger that could end the Iowa Caucuses, or any caucus for that matter, is a recount or a lawsuit. The surest way to put the caucuses in jeopardy is to have a problem tabulating the results on caucus night. Worse yet, a candidate could threaten a lawsuit over a disputed result or recount.
For the most part, Republicans and Democrats have done a great job in conducting the caucuses in a professional manner in Iowa, but state parties are not used to conducting statewide elections. While we have done an outstanding job in the past, we must remain perfect if we want to maintain our privileged First-In-The-Nation Status.
Candidates come and go. The make up of the electorate changes from election cycle to election cycle. The last thing that Iowans should worry about is whether or not a particular candidate sees a path to victory in their state. Isn’t that the campaign’s job anyway? If a candidate does decide to skip Iowa, I’m not going to freak out about it, but it does tell me all I need to know about their political philosophy.
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