Flashback: So Long Iowa, Been Nice Knowin’ Ya

 This column first ran in the New Hampshire Union Leader and later was republished in the Des Moines Register in April, 2011.

Iowa and New Hampshire are like two childhood friends who have grown apart. Back in high school, we were Mutt ’n Jeff. We did everything together! But then one of us settled down with a job, a house, and a family, while our old friend drifted about, dated a string of spacey girls, and talked about religion a lot. We still get together every four years and reminisce about the glory days, but the truth is we don’t have much in common anymore.

Two conditions make the early states in the presidential nominating process work. First, all candidates must believe they have an equal opportunity to succeed. They might not be happy with the outcome – most of them lose, after all – but they all have to feel like they had their shot and were given a fair hearing by voters. Second, the electorates have to be broadly representative of the party as a whole. This gives a win meaning and legitimacy.

The Iowa caucus may once have met those conditions for Republicans, but today it does not. Iowa Republicans have marginalized themselves to the point where competing in Iowa has become optional.

Iowa started killing its golden goose by letting the Ames straw poll get out of hand due to greed. Organized as a fundraiser for the state party, the straw poll became a second bite at the apple and an exercise in vote buying. In 1995, Phil Gramm spent a fortune to “tie” Bob Dole in the straw poll. It was a Pyrrhic victory: Gramm would drop out of the race days before the New Hampshire primary. In 1999, Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole were knocked out of the race when heavy media coverage of their weak straw poll showing dried up fundraising six months before a real vote was cast. That’s democracy?

Doubts about whether all candidates have a fair shot at winning support among Iowa’s caucus electorate has become a huge problem for the Hawkeye state. Evangelical Christians and social conservatives are key components of the diverse Republican coalition, but in Iowa, they are the dominant faction. Sixty percent of Republican caucus goers are evangelical Christians. In New Hampshire, they are 23 percent. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 win in Iowa, and the perception that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith disqualified him among many caucus voters, begs the question for secular candidates who emphasize fiscal issues: If you’re not likely to win what amounts to an evangelical primary, why compete?

Presidential strategists conclude Iowa is lots of risk with little upside. In 2000, John McCain became the first major candidate to skip Iowa. In 2008, several did. This year, a majority of candidates may make only a token effort there.

Reinforcing Iowa’s outsized social conservatism compared to the party as a whole, gay marriage is major issue there. After a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage, last year social conservatives defeated three justices in retention elections. Contrast that with New Hampshire, where gay marriage was voted in by the legislature and protests have been few.

This week came another troubling sign that Iowa Republicans are outside the party mainstream: a birther epidemic. A Public Policy Polling survey found that 48 percent of Iowa Republicans don’t believe President Obama was born in the United States, and another 26 percent said they weren’t sure if he was or if he wasn’t. It’s hard to talk about real issues when three quarters of the audience wear tin foil hats.

The winner of a contested Iowa caucus has gone on to win the Republican nomination just twice since 1980 (Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000), and no non-incumbent has won Iowa and New Hampshire in the same year since Gerald Ford. For comparison, South Carolina has voted for the nominee in eight consecutive primaries since 1980.

Iowa Republicans didn’t set out to marginalize themselves, but it’s happened – to New Hampshire’s benefit. With several major candidates likely to bypass Iowa and the odds rising that Iowa’s skewed caucus electorate could support candidates with limited general election appeal, the likelihood of New Hampshire being called upon to make a correction grow.

 Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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