Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Iowa's Diminishing Power in Republican Presidential Nominations

Did I miss something between Saturday and Sunday about Iowa?

All anyone has been talking about since then -- at least when it comes to the Hawkeye state and my Twitter feed -- is that Iowa is (perceived to be) losing the battle to remain relevant in the Republican presidential nomination process.

Is Iowa's power in the nomination process diminishing?

Did Iowa lose its position at the front of the presidential primary calendar line Saturday night without my knowing it?

The answer is no. And that calendar position is the main reason why Iowa is not going anywhere in the minds of voters or the campaign strategists who will run the campaigns of the candidates for the Republican nomination in 2015 and 2016. For pundits and some folks in Iowa on the Republican side of the aisle, the equation is different,  though.

We certainly hear about the diminishing relevance/influence for Iowa, and that prospect is definitely nudged along by current divisions within the Republican Party of Iowa. But by other metrics it doesn't necessarily look that way. Prospective candidates are visiting at quite a clip -- more so than at a similar point four years ago. Even Chris Christie may make an appearance there in the next year with a competitive governor's race in the offing. The Democratic Party has no plans of removing Iowa as one of the four early states, and the RNC has added new protections for the carve-out states -- Iowa included -- for 2016. None of this is evidence that Iowa is going anywhere or that its role is decreasing. It isn't. It is evidence that the dynamics of any given presidential race in any given year are different and filter through the unique Iowa environment (even that is not a constant) somewhat differently each time. That is to say that Iowa's role in any given Republican presidential nominating contest is evolving. It always has. The events of one cycle affect the future events of another.

There are some constants. Iowa's first. A sizable bloc of its Republican caucusgoers are apparently conservative. [They are. That provides some modicum of certainty that campaign strategists like.] Given that, it is more than reasonable to talk about what an uphill climb it possibly is for an establishment-type candidate to win/compete there. [It can be, but doesn't have to be.] Yet the candidates of all ideological stripes still head out to the heartland to varying degrees of frequency. And the process in both parties still filters significantly through Iowa.

Do either the straw poll or caucuses signal a winner of the nomination?

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't.1

And that still isn't what a first contest is normally going to do in a presidential nomination race. Iowa -- both the Ames straw poll and the caucuses collectively -- serves as a winnowing contest. The way in which it winnows differs from year to year, but it still begins the winnowing process.

...and not necessarily the picking of the next nominee.

The instances where those two -- Iowa correctly identifying the nominee and winnowing the field -- converge are the years in which, as Cohen et al (2008) would put it, the party decides or has decided in the invisible primary time leading up to the the first delegate selection event. In years when that convergence does not happen around Iowa, the Hawkeye state does what it normally does: influence the presidential nomination race.

As long as Iowa is first, the "skipping Iowa" issue that always pops up now when there is a Republican nomination contest on the horizon with no incumbent involved (which is to say, a competitive race) will continue to come up. [This is also something that Jon Bernstein dealt with rather eloquently again last week. We're recycling these things from 2012, folks. (see Bernstein here and here also] And people will continue to question the state's relevance.

That's part of being first; something Iowa wants to protect (and probably why a little paranoia about losing them -- real or imagined -- is a good thing for the state). But the bottom line now -- in 2013 -- is that Iowa is safe for 2016. The rules protect them and that guarantees a significant role in the nomination process.

...one that will evolve over the next couple of years and perhaps even look a little different than in 2012 or 2008 or...

1 There's some folly in reading too much into electoral precedents anyway. Two primary phase precedent bubbles were popped during 2012 for instance. 1) The winner of the Iowa caucuses always finishes first or second in the Ames Straw Poll. Michele Bachmann didn't. 2) The winner of the South Carolina Republican Primary has been the ultimately Republican nominee in every competitive nomination since 1980. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina but not the nomination.

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