Thursday, January 27, 2011

So Mitt Romney Might Skip Iowa

As FHQ tweeted a little while ago, strategically, this would be less than wise. Yet, there it is: Romney's advisers are talking (or floating a trial balloon) about skipping the Republican nomination race's first contest. First, let's look at why this is a bad idea. Then we can look at why it is, as I called it, a trial balloon.

Why skipping Iowa is a bad move
In many ways, a presidential nomination race, particularly one without a clear frontrunner, is about expectations. This point is debated in the political science literature, but this is why the caveat about the presence of a clear frontrunner is an important distinction to make. Regardless of expectations and the comparison to actual results when the inevitably come in at the beginning of primary and caucus season, a clear frontrunner from the invisible primary typically emerges as the nominee. The George W. Bush experience from 2000 is a good example. Candidates, Lamar Alexander and Liddy Dole among them, were dropping out of the race prior to even Iowa and New Hampshire and they were citing Bush's financial advantage. The expectation heading into primary season, then, was that Bush was going to run away with the Republican nomination. He did, but not before John McCain defied those expectations and crushed Bush by 19 points in the New Hampshire primary. McCain also peeled off a few additional victories, but in the end Bush's institutional support within the party was too great.

But 2012 doesn't have a clear frontrunner. If there is a frontrunner, Romney is, at least according to conventional wisdom (something that isn't necessarily trustworthy), the nominal frontrunner. So what would skipping Iowa mean? Is it a sign of weakness from the nascent Romney campaign? Is it a signal that Romney is focusing on New Hampshire? Is it a nod to the fact that Iowa is likely to support a "more conservative" candidate? FHQ is of the opinion that it is none of the above, but I'll hold off on that for a moment. Skipping Iowa is a bad idea precisely because it raises the expectations in New Hampshire. And that's something that polls and straw polls are already doing for the former Massachusetts governor. Romney, in other words, would have nowhere to go but down. That's fine if you're George W. Bush in 2000, but Mitt Romney doesn't have that sort of cushion heading into the home stretch of the invisible primary and into the actual contests next year.

It is a lose-lose situation. Romney loses Iowa by virtue of having skipped it and then is potentially likely to "lose" New Hampshire in the expectations game. That's not the kind of start you want if you are the frontrunner, no matter how nominal.

Why the skipping Iowa story is just that -- a story
As Jonathan Bernstein rightly pointed out in a response to my aforementioned tweet, this story is all about expectations, but about lowering them in Iowa not raising them in New Hampshire. The tendency here is to compare what's going on now to what happened with those candidates who ran in 2008. For Romney (and Huckabee) there had been a lot of activity to this point in 2008 in Iowa. Both were intent on doing well at the Ames Straw Poll in August 2007. Their resource allocations -- visits to the Hawkeye state and expenditures there -- reflected that. So did the eventual results. Romney edged Huckabee in the straw poll in August and the reversed positions in the January caucuses. So they should be doing what John Edwards did before 2008, right? [No, not that. I mean the actual campaigning.] Camping out in Iowa and basically putting all your eggs in that one basket. Well, that didn't work out so well for Edwards. Despite the presence there from 2004 onward, it didn't yield him anything other than second place in Iowa in 2008 (and barely at that. Clinton finished a fraction of percentage point behind the former vice presidential nominee.).

Despite the fact that the dynamics are different between 2008 and 2012, that tendency still remains: What did Romney do in 2008 in Iowa and what is he doing now for 2012? Romney learned a lesson from Iowa in 2008: Don't spend so much. Well, he really doesn't have to. He is a known quantity now and wasn't before 2008. All in all, then, this is an effort to lowball the Iowa effort in 2012. If the expectation is that Romney won't be a presence there, then any visit he makes or money his campaign spends there is seen as a net positive.

After all it still remains quite possible that social conservative caucus-goers in the state will split their vote if they cannot coalesce behind one candidate. And Mitt Romney, who still has something of a leftover campaign structure in the state, can emerge, if not with a victory, then a solid showing that will help him heading into subsequent contests.

UPDATE: Jonathan Bernstein adds his two cents as well. [I may be quicker than you, JB, but David beat me to it.]

Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling has more but from a polling perspective.

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