Sunday, January 31, 2016

Does Iowa Matter?

I remember when Iowa first became a player in the presidential nominating process.

As I understand it, Iowa has been holding caucuses since the 1840s, but the caucuses weren't the first–in–the–nation political events they have become in presidential politics until 1972. Nothing much happened in the caucuses that year.

It was outsider Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, who put Iowa on the political map with a strong showing in the 1976 Iowa caucuses. He didn't win. "Uncommitted" did, as it had in 1972. But Carter received more than 27% of the vote in the Democrats' caucuses, more than doubling the total of his nearest rival, and he got a lot of positive press that gave him the momentum he needed to win the nomination and, eventually, the presidency.

In the 40 years since that time, catching lightning in a bottle the way Carter did has become the holy grail for every candidate who has come into Iowa trailing significantly in the polls. Ironically, I suppose, that seldom happens, especially on the Democrats' side. Former Vice President Walter Mondale (in 1984), Vice President Al Gore (2000) and Sen. John Kerry (2004) won the Iowa caucuses as front runners and went on to win the nomination as expected — but not the general election.

Eventual nominee Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988, and Bill Clinton polled less than 3% in the 1992 caucuses, which were won by favorite son Tom Harkin in a landslide. Sixteen years later, Clinton's wife Hillary was the front runner going into Iowa — but came in third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.

The rest, as they say, is history, but I don't think that history repeated itself in that campaign. History, as Mark Twain said, doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

It is tempting to suggest that Obama duplicated Carter's accomplishment in 2008, but I would argue that Carter was much more of an unknown nationally than Obama. Carter also changed American politics by putting his name on every primary ballot; up to that time, candidates picked which primaries to contest. Most states picked their delegates in state conventions.

In fact, that is actually how delegates from Iowa will be chosen. The caucuses are simply the first step of a fairly lengthy process.

Carter had never held a national office when he won his party's nomination; Obama had been a U.S. senator for four years.

Plus, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention that nominated Kerry. That speech, which was given less than four months before Obama won the Senate seat from Illinois, is credited by many historians with launching Obama's national political career. Carter, to my knowledge, never appeared before a convention until he accepted the 1976 nomination.

Both, of course, went on to win the presidency, which was something Mondale, Gore and Kerry never did. But, from the perspective of becoming the party's nominee, Iowa Democrats have a fairly long history of supporting their eventual nomineess in the caucuses.

Thus, from an historical standpoint, Iowa certainly does matter for Democrats, particularly since the dawn of the 21st century. No Democrat has won the presidential nomination in the last two decades without winning the Iowa caucuses.

That makes Iowa incredibly important for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential aspirations. It is generally conceded that the Vermont senator will win New Hampshire a week from Tuesday, but to be a plausible threat to the supposedly inevitable Hillary Clinton, it is generally accepted by most political observers that Sanders must win in Iowa tomorrow.

Polls show Clinton with a lead of varying amounts. The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll has Clinton leading by three percentage points, 45% to 42%. The poll's margin of error is 4%.

Clinton's lead is outside the margins of error in the latest Public Policy Polling survey, where Clinton has 48% to Sanders' 40%, and the latest Gravis Marketing poll, where Clinton is exceeding 50%.

Before that, the NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll found Clinton leading by 48% to 45%, which is within that poll's margin of error, and a Monmouth University poll found Clinton leading 47% to 42%, which is outside that poll's margin of error (but only by about half a percentage point).

Clearly, anything could happen, and observers say a high turnout could make the race even tighter. That may depend on whether snow strikes Iowa during tomorrow night's caucuses. Currently, there is a less than 50% chance of snow in most of Iowa's major cities tomorrow night with the greatest chance for snow coming after midnight. So caucus goers may dodge the bullet, and turnout may be high. We'll see if that is good news for Sanders.

Yes, Iowa Democrats clearly have a history of endorsing their party's eventual nominee. Republicans? Not so much.

On the Republican side, victory in Iowa has meant little in the overall scheme of things. Since 1980, only two winners of the Republican nomination have won in Iowa's GOP caucuses — Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008. Dole beat George H.W. Bush in Iowa in 1988, and George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980.

When a party has an incumbent running for re–election, that party usually doesn't hold caucuses> The Democrats of 1980 were an exception to that rule. Then–President Carter defeated Edward Kennedy, 59% to 31%, in the Iowa caucuses that year. Since then, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Bushes were not challenged in Iowa.

According to recent polls, it could be just about anyone's caucus on the GOP side. Donald Trump was trailing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa at one point, but he seems to have pulled ahead following former vice–presidential nominee Sarah Palin's endorsement. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll showed Trump with a five–point lead over Cruz — just outside its margin of error. The latest Gravis Marketing poll reported that Trump has a four–point lead, right on that poll's margin of error.

Trump enjoys leads of seven and eight points in the NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll and Public Policy Polling survey.

Now because of the history of Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses, it seems that anyone who really wants to win the nomination would not want to finish first in Iowa. Historically Republicans who won the battle in Iowa wound up losing the war for the nomination.

Finishing in the top four has been best — Reagan came in second in Iowa in 1980, George H.W. Bush was third in 1988, and John McCain was fourth in 2008. No, you certainly don't have to win in Iowa to win the nomination, but apparently it is necessary to finish in double digits in Iowa if you want to be the standard bearer. If your share of the Iowa caucus vote is less than 10%, you probably won't be the nominee.

So that is my bottom line on the caucuses. Who won on the Democrats' side? That probably will be the party's nominee. Who won on the Republican side? That probably will not be the party's nominee.

Well, that is what history says. But students of political history never would have believed that someone with no political experience would be running so far ahead of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Donald Trump is an enigma — and even if he wins tomorrow night, that does not mean he will be denied the nomination.

At this point, the only thing of which I am certain is that, if not this week, then certainly next week (after the New Hampshire primary), we will start to see candidates dropping out of the races. Sanders may last to Super Tuesday or beyond if he can win Iowa. If not, he may be a casualty; former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is almost sure to be finished after New Hampshire.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush is likely to remain in the race no matter what happens. He still has more than enough money to finance a run through the spring primaries. But those who finish in single digits in Iowa or New Hampshire or both will be re–evaluating their situations, and my guess is that, by the middle of February, the Republican race will be down to a more manageable five or six candidates. That group is likely to include Trump, Cruz, Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, possibly Chris Christie and maybe someone else.

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