McCain might have added that this strategy works best if your main NH rival does run in Iowa, and loses there to an underfunded social conservative who goes on to split the vote against you in South Carolina and Florida. But then that would have involved acknowledging that his 2008 nomination was a crazy three-cushion shot that is unlikely to be replicated in the foreseeable future.Kilgore, alas, misses one little detail that McCain sort of missed, too, so I have to do this item to correct it: John McCain did campaign in Iowa. It's true that McCain devoted more resources to New Hampshire, but that's not the same thing as skipping Iowa. I know someone was tracking campaign days, but I can't find it right now...I did find a useful November 20, 2007 article quoting candidate McCain:
But asked by reporters Monday if he was moving out of Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, McCain answered, "That's not true. We are not moving out of Iowa."
"We are just going to work harder in all three [early voting] states: New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Iowa."
So six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, McCain was denying reports he would pull out of Iowa...which implies that he had a campaign there to fold if he chose. Indeed, McCain then surged in the Iowa polls, finishing basically in a tie for third with Fred Thompson.
If McCain hadn't contested Iowa -- if he had really skipped it -- he almost certainly would have finished behind not only Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson, but also behind Ron Paul (who took 9% to McCain and Thompson's 13%). That's not all! McCain voters would have gone somewhere else...probably not to Huck, and almost certainly not to Paul or to 6th place finisher Rudy Giuliani. Odds are they would have gone to some combination of Romney and Thompson. Would that have affected New Hampshire? There's no way to know for sure, but I suspect it would have. McCain won New Hampshire (over Romney) by just five points...it would have taken only a handful of McCain voters thinking he was out of it and switching to Romney or Thompson. And if McCain narrowly lost New Hampshire, would he have edged Huck in South Carolina later (given that Romney won the next two contests in Michigan and Nevada anyway)?
Let me go back and make a more basic point. One of the key reasons that it's important to do well in Iowa is that if you don't, and I'm going to emphasize it because it's important and oddly overlooked sometimes, someone else will. Suppose that John Edwards had passed on Iowa. Sure, he wouldn't have wasted his resources finishing third there, but someone else would have finished third, and might well have shifted some of the attention Edwards received in New Hampshire to Richardson, or Dodd, or Biden. Wouldn't have mattered much on the Democratic side, since the two frontrunners were genuinely strong candidates, but on the GOP side? Hard to predict.
McCain, in fact, got the best of both worlds By clearly focusing more on New Hampshire, he was able to get away with finishing relatively far back in Iowa -- without actually finishing all that far back. In short, what he did extremely well was playing the expectations game. Given that, a genuinely weak candidate field, and a bit of luck, he was able to survive a weak finish in Iowa. As Kilgore says, however, it's not something we should expect to see again any time soon.