Because my grandfather was a professor at the University of Iowa, my father grew up in Iowa, although I don’t think Iowa City is very representative of the state as a whole. In some respects, it’s probably a lot like Athens, Georgia, where my father’s brother was a professor for several decades. Iowa City is a liberal bastion in the midst of a much more conservative environment.
In any case, my connection to Iowa is slight, but I’ve always paid a little extra attention to the state. Politically, it’s unique. Traditionally, it’s been…I don’t want to say pacifistic… somewhat isolationist and opposed to military adventures. For the last thirty years, it has sent both the quite conservative Chuck Grassley and the quite liberal Tom Harkin to the Senate, usually with comfortable margins.
There aren’t a lot of states left that split their senators, and those states generally don’t create safe seats. I never sensed that Sen. Harkin was moving to the middle in an election year, and Sen. Grassley has been moving ever-further to the right even as his state has delivered it’s electoral votes to the Democrats in every election (excepting 2004) since 1984.
Despite the state’s persistent preference for Democratic presidential candidates, it is a considered a battleground (or purple) state, and it seems to have a slight preference for Republican governors despite the fact that the Democrats held the office from 1999 to 2011.
What distinguishes Iowa is that, even though it is closely-divided politically, the bases of both parties seem to be, respectively, more conservative and more liberal than average. This matters because the state holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses in every presidential cycle. Candidates who are more moderate or who want to cast themselves as a moderate alternative, are disadvantaged by having to compete in their first contest in a state that rewards the strongest partisan rhetoric. This seems to be more of a problem for the Republicans than the Democrats, but Hillary Clinton’s third-place finish in the 2008 caucuses probably doomed her campaign. Had she not recovered, unexpectedly, in New Hampshire, she wouldn’t have had any campaign at all.
Winning the first contest is obviously a great advantage, although history shows us that it is hardly decisive. For example, Poppy Bush came in third place, behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, in the 1988 caucuses, and Mike Huckabee won the 2008 caucuses. In 2012, Rick Santorum won them, but his advantage was lost because it was initially reported as a win for Mitt Romney. On the other hand, the Democratic winner of the caucuses has gone on to be the nominee in every cycle since 1992, when home-state Tom Harkin won them.
For the Republicans, their Iowa base is composed of strong social conservatives, which is why candidates like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Pat Robertson over-perform there, and it’s also why GOP strategists don’t like Iowa having the degree of influence it enjoys in picking their nominee.
The caucus winners, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, were favorites of Christian conservatives but came nowhere close to capturing their party’s nomination. More embarrassing, problems with the 2012 count resulted in the wrong candidate, Mitt Romney, initially being declared the GOP winner. (The tally was fixed about two weeks later.)
In response, establishment Republicans, including the governor, have called for scrapping the summer straw poll — a lucrative franchise for the state party, as candidates pay handsomely to compete — and have moved to assert greater control over the party-run caucuses. (The winner of the 2011 poll was Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who finished sixth in the real Iowa balloting and quit the presidential race the next day.)
“I want to preserve the Iowa caucuses,” Gov. Terry Branstad said bluntly in an interview in his ceremonial office, surrounded by portraits and busts of his predecessors — even if that means ending the straw poll and fighting the leadership of the state Republican Party.
Part of the Republicans’ problem is related to how delegates are actually selected, because even though Santorum won the 2012 caucuses and Romney came in a close second, most of the delegates at the Republican National Convention actually cast their ballots for Ron Paul. In other words, Ron Paul actually won the Iowa caucuses. Yet, even if the Republicans fix that problem, they still have to worry that their candidates will pull each other so far to the right in their efforts to win the Iowa straw poll and the caucuses, that they won’t be viable in the general election. State officials don’t want to lose out on being first in the nation, but they are willing to scrap the straw poll in an effort to limit the damage.
This is a state-level example of the Republican Party’s national problem. Their base is too crazy, and pandering to them is breaking Washington DC and rendering the party as a permanent opposition party. They are heavily overrepresented in Congress because Democrats tend to be urban or suburban, and are tightly packed into fewer districts, and because the Senate awards the same number of seats to Wyoming as it does to California. But, on a national level, they haven’t had a really strong election since 1988 (a year in which Michael Dukakis took 55% of the Iowa vote).
The Republican Party probably needs to win Iowa in order to win back the presidency, but the greater problem is that their candidates need to appeal to Iowa’s conservative base.