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Smart Pols Don't Skip Iowa

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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No, presidential candidates really can’t skip the Iowa caucuses.

The normally sensible Cook Political Report elections maven Amy Walter has rolled out this perennial non-starter:

Iowa isn’t going to pick the next GOP nominee. Its role in 2016 will be more to winnow the field of Evangelical/conservative candidates than to pick the Republican top of the ticket. If ever there were a year when the establishment candidates ... should skip it all together, this would be it.

It just doesn’t work.

1. Iowa is different than other states, but it’s not that different. Walter emphasizes how white, evangelical and conservative Iowa Republican caucus attenders are, but her accompanying chart reminds us that those characteristics are pretty common in other states, too. Any serious candidate for the nomination is going to have to be at least acceptable to Christian conservatives and to those calling themselves “very conservative.” And realistically, any nominee is going to need at least some of their votes in some primaries, and all of their enthusiasm in November. Ducking Iowa because it’s too conservative or too evangelical is really ducking a large part of the Republican Party.

2. Especially in a large field, publicity is essential, and the first big blast of publicity will be in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Candidates who aren't involved will become afterthoughts. Among other things, if a dozen candidates remain in by the fall, debate organizers are going to be looking for reasons to exclude contenders, and skipping Iowa could be an excellent one.

3. Skipping Iowa for a candidate who could have finished second, third or fourth means that everyone who did show up moves up. Worse, let's say Jeb Bush and Chris Christie share a target vote; if Bush skips and Christie participates, Christie not only hops up a spot, he also wins votes Bush would have won. The candidates who do well in Iowa get favorable publicity going into New Hampshire; the ones who don’t show up are just part of the crowd.

4. Party actors and the political press aren’t morons. Well, most of them anyway. The “expectations” game can get silly, but it’s based on something real: If a candidate does well in a state that is tough for him or her, then that’s a good result. So Bush and Christie get a built-in cushion in Iowa; finishing third or even fourth won’t hurt them.

Of course, there’s always the risk that they’ll lose. But you can’t win if you don’t play. Waiting for the right state is a losing strategy, just ask Al Gore in 1988 or Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

The bottom line: Walter is right that candidates don't have to win in Iowa; the caucuses mostly winnow the field. But failing to participate in the crucial early events is basically just self-winnowing. 

  1. Walter also says, correctly, that candidates may skip the Ames straw poll in Iowa this summer. The differences? Ames is a big deal for political junkies, but no one else even knows it exists. And those who do know about it don't take the results seriously, unless a candidate chooses to use it as a test of his or her appeal (in which case passing becomes mandatory). 

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net