Let's not get carried away.

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Scott Walker Doesn't Need 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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Some smart observers keep saying the Iowa caucuses are a "must win" for Scott Walker. This consensus is somewhere between exaggerated and wrong.

To prove why I'm right about this, let's look at the two models for how presidential nominees are chosen today. 

One path dates to the 1970s, when appealing to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states was the key. Doing well there generates momentum and publicity, leading to later wins. A candidate doesn't even have to come in first right off the bat.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter, who was as yet unknown nationally, reached a mediocre second place behind uncommitted delegates in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. But the subsequent publicity vaulted him into the lead elsewhere.

In 1984, John Glenn was Walter Mondale's biggest rival in the Democratic race until Mondale crushed him in Iowa. Meanwhile, Gary Hart finished a very distant second to Mondale but did better than expected, and the press treated him as a winner. Hart went on to score an upset in New Hampshire and almost grabbed the nomination from Mondale.

And remember that in 1992, Bill Clinton successfully sold himself as the victorious "comeback kid" despite losing to Paul Tsongas in the New Hampshire primary.

So if the media is saying Walker has to win in Iowa, will it write him off if he comes in second or third? Who knows? He, like his rivals, will have ups and downs in the many months before the caucuses in winter 2016; maybe he'll be the comeback kid if he finishes second or even third. 

The other model for how presidential nominations work is that party actors -- politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party staff and officials, activists and donors, party-aligned interest groups and media -- collectively choose the candidate. According to this Party Decides theory, the main function of the primaries and caucuses is not to choose a nominee, but to give party actors information on whether the candidate or candidates they consider to be plausible nominees actually appeal to voters.

Once this group settles on one contender, it directly and indirectly steers voters in the caucuses and primaries toward its choice. In many cases (as with George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000), the two parties' nominees are chosen before Iowa. Only when a party is split between, or neutral on, two contenders (as with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008) do voters, media and momentum start to matter.

So if the party actors have already chosen a candidate, then even a poor third-place finish in Iowa (as George H.W. Bush managed in 1988) isn't a big deal. By contrast, the results in Iowa mattered in 2004, when Democratic party actors were inclined to oppose Howard Dean but open to supporting him if he turned out to be a potent electoral force. Once he wound up third, they rapidly moved on.

In Walker's case, since Republicans already believe he is good with voters -- after winning three statewide campaigns in Democratic-friendly Wisconsin -- it's unlikely they'll be particularly concerned with how he does in Iowa. They might be slightly more concerned if, say, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or both perform dismally there.  

Who really needs good results in the Hawkeye State? Viable candidates who haven't cracked the top tier -- for example, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry. If the nomination is still pretty open (and all indications are that it is), and if they can't break out in Iowa, then they're truly going nowhere.

  1. With more than a dozen candidates on the ballot and relatively weak national standing (at least so far) for the front-runners, it's easy to imagine one of these candidates winding up at or below where John Glenn was in 1984 (3.5 percent, fifth place) or Phil Gramm in 1996 (9.3 percent, fifth place). That could mean falling from the top tier to washed-up overnight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net