At the New York Times yesterday, Jonathan Martin wrote a catch-up piece for those who haven’t been paying attention (or reading Political Animal) to the early 2016 GOP skirmishing over and in Iowa. Long story short: Iowa Republicans are nervous that their role in the presidential nominating process could be diminished if it’s perceived as serving as nothing other than a quarter-final round to winnow out some hyper-conservatives. But hey, nothing’s actually happened to change Iowa’s role, and it’s not even clear that the embarrassing spectacle of the Ames Straw Poll, often considered the first real event of the presidential cycle, will finally come to an end.

Truth is, in today’s GOP every presidential cycle will be conservative-heavy, so a “winnowing” role remains pretty important, and as Mitt Romney showed in 2012, there will always be a temptation for less stridently conservative candidates with big sacks of cash to “invade” Iowa and try for an early knockout blow. Besides, one ideologue’s conservative playground is another’s RINO sandtrap. My favorite reaction to Martin’s piece, from Moe Lane at RedState, made the latter case:

Of course, the NYT gets it precisely backward: they think that Iowa’s travails are, wait for it, wait for it… due to the conservatives taking over the nomination process! In reality, what propels a lot of national Republican disgust towards the Iowa caucuses is the way that they require Republican candidates to pretend that propping up fuel ethanol production is not a poor-person-killing abomination before the Lord, if said candidates want to compete in that state….

I will concede that killing the Ames Straw Poll would be a good idea; it has devolved from a net positive to the GOP (party atmosphere, free PR) to a net negative (money sink for candidates, absolutely zero predictive power, easy to scam). I suspect that we will still be stuck with it for some yet, though.

So presumably Iowa Caucus winners George W. Bush (2000), Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012) weren’t true conservatives, and Steve King is a pretender as well. Whatever. Lane does not mention, however, that Ron Paul always opposed ethanol subsidies, and it’s his former Revolutionaries that now control the Iowa GOP and are trying to save the Ames Straw Poll. You really need to dig into the details to understand Iowa, and that’s the real hold the state has over political junkies and candidates alike: the time you have to invest in the place tends to reinforce its importance.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.