...for candidates focused on winning votes, and for voters in other states concerned with results, the focus on Iowa seems puzzling, if not a waste of time.
Some criticize the caucuses over procedure: Only the Republicans cast secret ballots; absentee voting isn't allowed; the entire process takes an absurd amount of time. But Iowa is irrelevant for more important, big-picture reasons.
For both Republicans and Democrats, winning Iowa doesn't mean winning the nomination, or the presidency. Compare Iowa's predictive power to that of the South Carolina GOP primary, or to the role of Ohio in the general election. South Carolina has selected the eventual Republican nominee, and Ohio has selected the presidential winner, in every presidential election year since 1980.
Iowa may be first, but it's never been a perfect bellwether. The caucuses offer candidates a chance to prove they can organize well, but they are not even an accurate gauge of the public opinions of most party members, let alone most Iowa voters.
First of all, I like how those writing on this topic always gloss over the fact that because there have been so many incumbent Republican presidents, there have only been five instances since 1972 in which the Iowa caucuses have been meaningful on the Republican side. There's a minuscule sample size here: 1976, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000 and 2008. For those scoring at home, Iowa correctly predicted the nominee half of the time (1976, 1996 and 2000). I'll let you decide whether that .500 batting average is good or not.
Actually, FHQ will make the case that it is a solid stat for Iowa for a couple of related reasons. First of all, it is not Iowa's job to pick the nominee. Iowa's position as the first contest in any and most nomination races is to winnow the field. Iowa, then, chooses the top two or three candidates among whom New Hampshire voters will choose, and so on down the line of contests. Russell brings up the notion that South Carolina has a better track record of choosing the nominee.
And that's the second point. Of course South Carolina has a better record of choosing a, in this case Republican, nominee. Would a state (Iowa) whose voters choose among the full field of candidates have a better chance of collectively deciding on the eventual nominee or would a state (South Carolina) whose voters choose among the top two remaining (viable) candidates at that point in the race have a better chance of identifying the nominee based on the information gleaned from earlier contests? It stands to reason, from a purely mathematical standpoint, that the later state in the sequence would have a higher percentage of correct predictions. Does that mean South Carolina should go first? No, it doesn't because I suspect we would be discussing the same things in South Carolina -- if it went first -- as we are in Iowa right now: The voters are potentially too conservative to speak for the nation (or the Republican voters across the nation) as a whole and that more moderate candidates would be better served skipping the contest altogether.
That isn't a strategy for winning a nomination for most candidates no matter which state goes first. The bottom line is that Iowa is a winnowing state not a deciding state. Those states -- like South Carolina -- come later.2
And while we're on the subject, who is skipping Iowa anyway? Romney is playing coy, but he isn't officially skipping Iowa (...yet). The former Massachusetts governor is wisely rationing out his resources there, keeping the door open. If, as the caucuses approach, Romney's fortunes look up -- in the event that the social conservative candidates split the social conservative vote in Iowa and improve Romney's chances there -- he will expend more resources. But if not, he will simply continue the minimalist approach in Iowa, banking on a longer, drawn out race instead. Romney has the resources to do that; other candidates don't.
1 And it is advice that the candidates, or few candidates really, will never take.
2 There's a reason Florida wants to be fifth. Sunshine state Republicans want to be decisive. They'll leave the winnowing to the first four states.