A few weeks ago, a reporter for the New York Times has penned an article that puts the future of the Iowa Caucuses in doubt because Republican caucus goers in Iowa are inhospitable to more moderate presidential candidates.
Articles like these are nothing new. It seems like every couple of months, some news entity from one of the coasts feels that it’s necessary to bash Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation status. It is also not a surprise that the premise of the latest article relies heavily on the opinions of Mike Murphy, a prominent national political consultant who advised John McCain during his 2000 presidential campaign, and David Kochel, the Iowan who has steered Mitt Romney two consecutive unsuccessful presidential caucus campaigns in the state.
The article states, “Establishment Republicans fear that conservatives have become such a dominant force in the nominating process here that they may drive mainstream presidential candidates away.” This is hardly a new idea from the national media and critics of the caucuses, but unfortunately, far too many believe in this myth.
The article goes on to state the same tired and predictable outcome if things remain the same in Iowa. “That would relegate the caucuses to little more than a test of the party’s right-wing sentiment, and would do little to identify and propel the eventual nominee.” The same people have been saying the same thing for years, yet Iowa’s caucuses continue to be more than just a battle for the heart and souls of hard-line conservatives.
What this article, and others like it, fails to examine is why conservatives have become such a dominant force in the Republican caucuses. Can it be true that caucus goers in Iowa are much more conservative than base Republicans in other states? The media and some political consultants want people, and especially potential presidential candidates, to believe that is the case.
That claim is simply not true. Of course Iowa has plenty of conservative activists, zealous social conservatives, as well as a healthy crop of conspiracy theorists, but so does every state in the nation. Yes, even the bluest of the blue states. It is true that the nature of the caucuses means a lower turnout than one would expect in a primary, especially an open primary like New Hampshire’s that allows Democrats and no-party voters to participate. Iowa’s closed caucus does contribute to the over amplifying of conservatives in the process, but is turnout a problem with the electorate or the candidates?
While conservative caucus goers are typically blamed for Iowa being a difficult place for more moderate Republican candidates to succeed, many times it’s the cowardly approach promoted by campaign consultants that makes it difficult for the John McCains and Rudy Giulianis of the world to compete in Iowa. It’s also noteworthy that past decisions to ether bypass or diminish the Iowa caucuses had nothing to do with the controversial issues that many moderate Republicans would rather not deal with.
Murphy served as John McCain’s chief strategist in his 2000 presidential campaign. How did that campaign approach Iowa? Well, they simply skipped Iowa based on the belief that McCain would be unacceptable to Iowa voters because of his outward opposition to ethanol subsidies. Did you get that? It wasn’t the Senator’s position on abortion that drove him out of Iowa – it was his opposition to ethanol. By the way, twelve years later, a number of Republican candidates campaigning in Iowa were openly critical of ethanol and other energy subsidies, and it didn’t hurt them on caucus night.
Murphy’s skip Iowa strategy did help McCain win the New Hampshire primary that year, but the race was over as soon as George W. Bush stomped McCain in South Carolina. However, eight years later McCain was appointed as the frontrunner of the 2008 Republican nomination race. This time around, he embraced Iowa. He hired a large staff, and made a lot of early campaign visits to the state.
However, the McCain campaign faltered when it couldn’t meet its national fundraising expectations in the spring of 2007. A debate over immigration reform also erupted in the U.S. Senate. A lack of funds combined with his unpopular position on immigration reformed forced the campaign to curtail its Iowa operations and retreat to New Hampshire.
Again, it wasn’t Iowa’s socially conservative caucus goers that forced McCain out of Iowa in June of 2007, it was his own underperforming and bloated campaign operation. The immigration issue was a factor too, but that issue isn’t necessarily a deal breaker with all caucus goers, especially today. McCain basically pulled out of Iowa because he had to fire and reallocate staff and other resources to New Hampshire.
If anything, Mitt Romney’s previous two second-place finishes indicate that a more moderate candidate can do very well in the Iowa caucuses. In both contests, Romney garnered 25 percent of the vote. That was good enough for a virtual tie with Rick Santorum in 2012, and a nine-point loss to Mike Huckabee in 2008. While Romney was never able to win Iowa, he was definitely competitive.
It’s understandable why Romney advisors have a sour taste in their mouths from their two experiences with the Iowa caucuses. In advance of the 2008 caucuses, the Romney campaign did everything right. They started early, hired an impressive Iowa staff, organized down to the precinct level, participated in all the Iowa traditions, and spent crazy money trying to win the state. Yet on caucus day, it was a southern governor with a funny sounding last name that that came in first. And keep in mind that Mike Huckabee didn’t just beat Mitt Romney in 2008. Huckabee embarrassed him.
Romney took a different approach to Iowa in 2012. Instead of spending a lot of time and money in Iowa, he avoided the state and his campaign team downplayed Iowa’s significance. As the caucuses neared and polls continued to show Romney as the frontrunner despite his hands-off approach in the state, he reengaged late in the process and campaigned across Iowa in the final month of the campaign.
Romney’s approach to Iowa in 2012 was similar to how candidates move from one state to another after Iowa and New Hampshire take their terms. It is a strategy that can only be used by a legitimate frontrunner, and for Romney it almost worked. The problem with engaging Iowa voters late in the process is that it allows a greater opportunity for one of the lesser-known candidates to gain momentum and credibility.
This is what happened to Romney in 2008 and 2012. At various points of their campaigns, both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were left for dead by the media and voters alike. Yet when the frontrunner doesn’t choose to engage in a state like Iowa, it allows a campaign with limited money and staff to travel town to town and make their case directly to voters. In essence, the Romney campaign’s arrogance toward their competition in 2008 and 2012 led to its downfall in Iowa.
In 2008, the Romney campaign thought that they had won the Iowa caucuses when McCain left the state, and so they never took Huckabee seriously until it was too late. In 2012, Romney’s plan was to swoop in and win without ever really participating. Again, Romney’s plan on paper was brilliant, but with candidates like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry faltering as the caucuses approached, social conservatives coalesced behind Santorum much like they coalesced behind Huckabee after Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson, and Tom Tancredo exited the race in 2008.
Iowa’s role has always been to winnow a crowded field of candidates down to a more manageable and legitimate field of candidates, but for Romney’s strategy to work, he needed more than one viable socially conservative candidate in the race to split the vote. So again, is Iowa just too darn conservative or were the strategies adopted by more moderate campaigns flawed?
Perhaps the greatest obstacle for moderate candidates in Iowa is their own work ethic. As a Republican Party of Iowa official for the 2008 caucuses, I sat down and talked to a number of campaign officials about campaigning in Iowa and the caucus process. The Giuliani campaign always seemed hesitant about their abilities in Iowa, which is something that I disagreed with.
Was Rudy Giuliani going to appeal to enough of your traditional Iowa caucus goers to win the Iowa Caucuses? No, but campaigns are not limited to just those people who have caucused in the past. Past caucus goers should be part of a winning formula, but so should bringing in new people to the process. Ron Paul brought new people into the caucuses in 2008 and 2012, and did quite well for himself. More moderate candidates like Giuliani must take that same approach if they want to give themselves a chance to win.
Had Paul’s consultants and advisors only targeted the 120,000 or so Iowans who have previously caucused, there is no way he would have ever finished in third place in 2012. Reaching out to activate new people in the caucus process is not only good for the candidates, but it’s also good for the caucuses. While Paul is the most notable Republican candidate to have done that, Barack Obama’s 2008 caucus campaign followed a similar route, but on a much larger scale. Not only did he win Iowa, but his victory here put him on course to win the nomination.
It would be nice if instead of bashing the Iowa Caucuses whenever the opportunity arises, people like Murphy and Kochel would look back at what they could have done differently. I know the most difficult thing for political consultants to do is to look in the mirror and admit where they went wrong, but caucus campaigns are far too complicated to be able to point to conservative caucus goers and place all the blame for moderate losses on them.
Can a moderate Republican win the Iowa Caucuses? Sure, as long as they work hard and work to expand caucus participation. All one needs to do is look at how many more Republicans vote in primaries than caucuses to see that the potential is there. What’s missing is a Republican candidate who’s willing to work hard and reach out to new people who might not have caucused before.
Maybe instead of wanting to put a muzzle on Iowa’s conservative activists, those who have problems with the caucuses should do a better job of finding candidates who actually are not afraid to make their case to all Iowans. Last I checked, being the leader of the free world isn’t an easy job. If the moderate candidates can’t make their case to Iowans, then maybe they are not cut out for the job.
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