Monday, March 3, 2014

Iowa. Still a Winnowing Contest. Clinton and everyone else.

The news stories about the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses are less deja vu these days than they are like the constant, repetitive backgrounds in cartoon chase scenes. The pattern is pretty clear at this point:
  1. Some combination of Hillary Clinton lost Iowa in 2008 and/or frontrunners often "stumble" there. 
  2. Iowa is terrible at picking nominees/presidents.
  3. A new poll is released showing Clinton up on any and all Democratic challengers.
  4. Wash, rinse, repeat. 
Presumably, this will continue until Iowa in 2016. Maybe the cycle will begin anew for 2020 shortly thereafter.

Mark Z. Baraback has the latest fuel for the fire that powers this perpetual motion machine; cautioning a prospective Clinton campaign about what might lie ahead in the Hawkeye state.  The problem is that there is little caution in there. The problem from a political science perspective is that we're dealing with a small N problem. There are so few observations -- competitive nomination races in the post-reform era (1972 and after) -- that it is difficult to make generalizations in a sea of idiosyncratic presidential election cycles we can chalk up to the dynamics/fundamentals of any given year.

The point is that it is relatively easy to find examples of frontrunners losing (relative to expectations) in Iowa. [That game can be played with New Hampshire too!] Within that group there are two subgroups: 1) those frontrunners who "lose" Iowa and go on to win the nomination and 2) those frontrunners who "lose" in Iowa and lose the nomination. The latter group is fairly limited and often leads to the conclusion in #2 above. [More on that momentarily] There are, though, other groups of cycles that often get short shrift in this discussion. Most people remember recounts in 2000, but understandably forget the two (mostly) cakewalk nomination races that year. Many also fail to include the favorite (regional/state) son phenomenon that hit Iowa in the 1988-1992 period when Gephardt, Dole and Harkin won the caucuses.

So, there are exceptions. Regardless, frontrunners are typically successful in their quests for nominations no matter if you quantify that -- being a frontrunner -- as a mixture of poll position and funds raised (Mayer) or as a combination of those two and endorsements from party elites/insiders (Cohen, et al).

[And keep in mind that no one in Iowa wants to say that Hillary Clinton is inevitable. As Richard Skinner has noted in response to Peter Hamby's story from Iowa, it hurts their bottom line -- encouraging interest in the (competitive) Iowa caucuses. It is same there as it is in newsrooms where writing "Clinton is inevitable" stories gets old quite fast.]

The logical follow up is to ask why Iowa is first when it is so bad a choosing nominees/presidents. But please don't do that. That's just keeping Fred and Barney running past that doorway and potted plant. Iowa just does not derail front-running candidates with any level of regularity. It tends to winnow the field, leaving the determinative job to some subsequent state or series of state contests. That is the cycle we should be paying attention to.

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