Can a Presidential Candidate Skip Iowa? Not Really.

Yes, it’s time to roll this one out already:

The first question Team Christie will have to confront will be whether they play in Iowa at all.  (Christie adviser Mike DuHaime declined to engage questions for this story.)

The last two GOP victors of the caucuses — Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 — were ardent social conservatives, backed by gritty grassroots networks of evangelicals, pastors and home-schoolers and bolstered by a relentless retail repertoire.  At first glance, the Hawkeye State does not look like hospitable turf for the bawdy, biting Christie who has cultivated much of his personality around losing his patience.

That’s David Catanese, with a balanced approach to the question of whether Chris Christie should skip Iowa (if he runs in 2016, that is).

Unfortunately: a balanced approach is the wrong approach. The correct approach is that no one should ever skip Iowa. You basically can’t win a nomination while skipping Iowa. I’m just going to repost a couple of paragraphs from what I said about this way back in 2011…

Skipping Iowa doesn’t work. Most people don’t pay attention to presidential politics until very late in the game. When they start paying attention — when the non-obsessive section of the news media starts paying lots of attention — is around the Iowa caucuses, and a candidate not playing there will, naturally, not receive the publicity that the other candidates receive. Then comes the caucuses, and another blast of publicity that the non-participant will miss. And the last bit is that the winners in Iowa will at the very least be taken more seriously, and perhaps get the kind of windfall positive publicity that Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Gary Hart in 1984 got. Note that Hart’s came from a weak second place finish; the news media have to find some candidate to give the rest of the primaries and caucuses some drama.

The truth is that if you don’t have a realistic chance of finishing top three in Iowa, you really don’t have a realistic chance of winning the nomination. And, yes, I know that John McCain fell just short of that, but that would certainly put him in the category of having had a realistic shot at the top three.

That’s what I wrote pre-2012. Just a bit more: you don’t have to win Iowa. You don’t need to finish second in Iowa. I’m not even convinced that you need to finish third in Iowa. You certainly don’t have to go all-in in Iowa, and you certainly can try to lower expectations there. You just can’t take yourself out of the conversation for several months in the heart of the nomination battle and still expect to be the nominee, and that’s pretty much what happens to anyone who skips Iowa. It’s not a realistic strategy.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.