Another Premature Obituary for Iowa

You had to figure it was coming. In Politico Magazine today, there’s a good if workmanlike recitation of the various factors (candidates looking beyond the Caucuses, the Fox News debate screen, the consequent de-emphasizing of Pizza Ranch campaigning) you’ve been reading about here for weeks that have upset the usual calculations about Iowa’s role in the GOP nominating contest. The author is even an actual Iowan, Dave Price, political director of WHO-TV and author of a book on the 2012 Iowa caucuses.

But the headline (“Is Iowa Over?”) and a lot of the “angst” in the piece represent soft porn for the many Iowa-haters out there who deplore the state’s outsized role in the nominating process for various reasons.

Iowa’s political obituary has been written before, but usually by outsiders looking in.

Now, Iowans are fretting: Will campaigns still want to invest as much time campaigning, traveling and running ads on television and radio, when their time might be better served elsewhere with the hope they can raise their national standing in the polls? Iowa banks on the rental cars, airport traffic, packed restaurant tables, coffee shops and hotel rooms, plus all those apartments for staffers, campaign offices and consultants’ fees. Don’t forget the state parties’ benefits, too—the computers campaigns may leave for them, the voter lists they rent from them, the contributions they give to them and the fundraisers whose seats are filled for them.

That’s all true, but the piece does not explain at any point why the developments it discusses diminish the role of the Iowa Caucuses in shaping if not determining (which is what it has always done) the nominating process.

Yes, the Fox News debate screen may displace the Iowa Straw Poll as a “winnower” of the GOP field, and that could mean diminished appearances in Iowa during the next few weeks for the bottom-feeding candidates threatened by the screen. And yes, it’s beginning to look like Jeb Bush and perhaps Marco Rubio aren’t going to seriously compete for Iowa. Subtract all that from the money Iowa will harvest.

That still leaves a post-winnowed field that’s large and competitive enough to make the Caucuses a very important test. Mike Huckabee has to go for broke in Iowa; nothing other than another very strong showing there will keep the media vultures from surrounding his campaign. Scott Walker is also a sure Iowa competitor. Aside from the expectations set by his early popularity there, he needs an early win to solidify his claim to be the Electable True Conservative Alternative to Bush and Rubio, and it will be a good while before his native midwest re-enters the calendar. Rand Paul already has a decent base of support in Iowa, and could use a boost to lift him a bit in the two subsequent states he hopes to win outright, Nevada and New Hampshire. And whichever True Conservatives survive the debate cut will almost certainly want to stage an ambush for Walker and Huckabee in Iowa.

So it’s not as though the presidential field or the media can afford to ignore Iowa just because “only” seven or eight candidates are playing there.

After suggesting that the “angst” in Iowa is bipartisan, Price doesn’t really mention the Democratic Caucuses other than to repeat the very old news that it might not be that competitive a contest this time around. I’d say the odds of a serious if not close competition have certainly improved a lot the last few weeks. Right now any long-shot Bernie Sanders path-to-the-nomination strategy would have to involve a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa followed by an upset win in New Hampshire. Clinton will have an enormous incentive to put the fire out early, in Iowa, with vast expenditures (again, the rental car counters and hotel front desks and party fundraisers may be pleasantly surprised).

As for the long national nightmare of Iowa’s domination of presidential politics coming to an end (the real subtext of Price’s piece), I still don’t get it: nothing about this cycle reflects a structural defect in Iowa’s role. Even if the debate screen means that the Iowa GOP’s “reforms” of the Straw Poll were wasted, the event could come back to life in a future cycle without this year’s insanely large field. If Democrats lose the general election next year, you better bet the next Caucus will be competitive.

Sure, the parties could finally decide to overhaul the entire process with something more rational like rotating regional primaries or at least a guaranteed change in who goes first. But I’ve been waiting for that overhaul for about three decades, and there are no signs yet it’s on the horizon.

So this is probably another premature obituary for Iowa’s preeminence, unusual mainly just because the guy who wrote it is going to get some serious blowback from his friends and neighbors.

UPDATE: Whatever “angst” Iowa Republicans are undergoing will be suspended for the weekend as seven presidential candidates (Carson, Fiorina, Graham, Huckabee, Perry, Rubio and Walker) participate in Joni Ernst’s hog-o-centric Roast and Ride event.

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.