The Day of the Great Corn Idol

Normally political writers at this time of year have light duties, sharing with readers many real-life distractions, and confining themselves to year-end thumbsuckers conveying with half-hearted gravitas the greater meaning of the previous twelve months.

But this year, as in 2007, the convoluted front-loading pressures of the presidential nominating calendar have given horse-race enthusiasts a starting point immediately after the New Year, when a small portion of the registered voters of Iowa seek to exercise their illogical grip on the occupancy of the White House.

Most political junkies have a love-hate relationship with the Great Corn Idol of the caucuses, and I’m no exception. Iowa’s status makes sense only in the context of a country with weak national political parties and the habit of letting states make a host of decisions that sub-national jurisdictions do not make in most advanced democracies. No one designing a presidential nominating contest from scratch would choose to force candidates to spend months if not years trudging through the pot-luck dinners and “house parties” and county fundraisers and ideological or interest-group vetting “forums” of a relatively small and notably non-diverse midwestern state, or risk being obliterated by failing to win “tickets out of Iowa” to later primaries and caucuses. Iowa’s primacy represents a strategic and tactical nightmare for campaigns, and an affront to the rest of the country.

But let’s face it, the Iowa caucuses are fun, if only because they are so regularly humiliating to the candidates who have seen a future POTUS in the bathroom mirror each morning since elementary school. Back in 1980, the man who was destined to become the secular saint of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, entered the room at every Iowa event to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” He lost Iowa that year to George H.W. Bush, who in turn finished third in Iowa in 1988 when he was the “inevitable” nominee, finishing behind a televangelist. Both men eventually won the nomination and the presidency, but only after eating a lot of crow and firing a few big-name political advisers.

And some major figures, of course, have not survived being humbled by Iowa, most notably during the last two cycles. It’s about as certain as anything in politics that the money and time and over-exposure they devoted to losing Iowa destroyed the 2004 candidacy of Howard Dean and the 2008 candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. Had any of these candidates simply skipped the state, they would have probably won. But who wants to tell the next president of the United States that he or she can’t or shouldn’t muster the effort to dominate a small-turnout event whose winner will be rewarded with the kind of hype and “momentum” that make the most extravagant expenditures seem rational? Deputy campaign manager Mike Henry famously told Hillary Clinton precisely that going into 2008. But when his memo leaked, Team Clinton so feared the vengeance of Iowans towards unbelievers in the caucuses that it poured enough resources into the state to fatally cripple her candidacy down the road.

And so the Great Corn Idol continues to inspire fear among candidates and envy among the other states who quadrennially conspire to displace or dilute its influence. Maybe someday a powerful incumbent president running for re-election with nothing to fear will find a way to impose a different nominating process in collusion with the opposition party. And many pols hope a particular result in Iowa (say, a Ron Paul victory on Jan. 3) will make future caucuses “irrelevant” by showing they have no direct relationship with the ultimate decision. But that’s probably just wishful thinking. Whether candidates win or lose in Iowa, or even engage there, it stands athwart the invisible primary that shapes every competitive nomination contest, making irrational demands that can be enthusiastically embraced or rejected–but never really ignored.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.