Thursday, January 27, 2011

Catch of the Day

(Updated below)

Nepotism alert! It goes to my brother, the terrific reporter David S. Bernstein, who complains about gullible journalists buying the idea that expectation-lowering Mitt Romney might skip Iowa.

As David points out, it wasn't even true that John McCain skipped Iowa in 2008; he shifted resources away, but still was campaigning and competing there. And read him on Rudy Giuliani's 2008 -- excellent. He's correct: Romney is trying to lower expectation in Iowa, not skipping it. Great catch!

I'll add two things. The first, and most obvious one, is that every single serious candidate for the nomination must compete in Iowa and New Hampshire. It isn't necessary to win in both. It might not even be necessary to win one of them, although no modern nominee has ever managed that trick (Updated: see below). But there's just no way to survive the winnowing down effect if a candidate self-winnows in either of the first two states.

The second thing is that, near as I can tell, the idea that one can "skip" these events is purely a throwback to pre-reform days. Before 1972, primaries were mainly a demonstration sport. Formal state party organization officials and state and local politicians, who were the ones who controlled delegations and therefore selected nominees, used information from primaries to help decide if a candidate would "play" in their state in the general election. The most famous example was John Kennedy's victory in West Virginia in 1960, which "proved" that Southerners would be willing to vote for the Catholic Massachusetts Senator. In those days, candidates most certainly did actively enter only selected primaries, and there were appropriate strategies for which primaries -- if any -- to contest. But applying the language of those times to the post-reform world is entirely anachronistic.

I've argued, or at least speculated, that in the current elite-driven process (see Cohen et al.) that primaries have to some extent returned to their old demonstration, signaling function in the process. However, as long as everyone pays attention to Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps South Carolina, as the key signals, there's no way any candidate can afford to actually skip any one of them.

See too Josh Putnam's take -- hey, he's quicker than I am!

UPDATE: Dana Houle tweets that neither Bill Clinton nor George McGovern chalked up a win in one of the first two states, and concludes: "Only 14 competitive pres primaries (8D 5R) after 68. Small sample yet in 2 cases nom didn't win NH or IA."  He's correct about Clinton and McGovern; Clinton finished second in New Hampshire, while McGovern finished second in both Iowa and New Hampshire. I should have remembered that, above.

However, I don't think it changes much. In 1992, there essentially were no Iowa caucuses; oh, they held them, but not only did the candidates pass on it with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin running, but the press stayed away, thus truly making it a non-event. As far as 1972, the brand-new process was still just getting organized; indeed, no one really understood that Iowa mattered until after the event. Regardless, McGovern and Clinton both contested what there was to contest in the early going. They may or may not be counterexamples of whether or not one needs to win in IA/NH, but they are certainly not counterexamples of the need to compete in those states.

9 comments:

  1. Similar to the Harkin situation, Paul Tsongas from neighboring Massachusetts was considered a shoo-in for the '92 New Hampshire primary. Tsongas did indeed win, but Clinton finished a strong second, on the heels of the Gennifer Flowers revelations. Far from it being unimportant, New Hampshire was a crucial step in Clinton's nomination.

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  2. Well, sort of. Tsongas was only the favorite late in the game; he went through most of the invisible primary as a candidate who couldn't get anyone to take him seriously (as well they shouldn't have: he gets my vote for most dishonest serious presidential candidate ever). And it wasn't at all like Iowa. Everyone was campaigning in NH; it's just that the New England candidate presumably had an advantage up there. In Iowa, virtually no one ran a campaign -- my memory is that the major candidates did make minor attempts to come in second without seeming to have campaigned, but for the most part they really didn't run there.

    Definitely true that NH was a key step for Clinton; it more or less destroyed everyone else, and Tsongas vs. Clinton was sure to be a romp. Basically, Clinton had "won" the nomination during the invisible primary, and NH was important to reassure everyone that voters wouldn't care about his affairs, the draft, etc.

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  3. I would dispute the significance of Clinton and McGovern's feats.

    In 1992, everyone bypassed Iowa because favorite son Tom Harkin was running. You can't call it a contest when no one is contending. Everyone pulled a Matador and let Harkin win uncontested, if only because they didn't want the press to give him a spotlight, which they eventually didn't.

    As for 1972, the Iowa caucus had yet to gain national significance. Even today, with the sole exception of Iowa, the press doesn't pay any significant attention to caucus contests. Back in '72, Iowa was treated just like every other caucus -- insignificant. Iowa didn't become a phenomena until Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601760308,00.html

    Therefore there are perfectly good reasons why the two campaigns were in fact outliers.

    I should also note you can't judge today's primary process via yester-years because of all the rule changes, most significantly choosing delegates via proportional representation and the rise of open primaries that allow Independents to participate.

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  4. I'm curious (and not being defensive) about the meaning behind: "[Tsongas] gets my vote for most dishonest serious presidential candidate ever". Do you mean his seriousness as a candidate was somehow dishonest or was Tsongas dishonest? Thanks

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  5. If I recall, Tsongas kept secret the fact that he was dying. He died two days before the end of Clinton's first term, so it is safe to say that if he had been elected president, he would almost certainly have died in office. I don't know how that makes him any more than dishonest than FDR, however.

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  6. Kylopod,

    Fair enough, but I'd say that FDR's situation was a bit different, and he did wind up picking a top-notch successor. But, yes, you're right about that. I mostly think Tsongas was much worse because he had a lot less excuse for it, and because, as with FDR's other (many) flaws and mistakes, I think his strengths clearly outweigh them. Also, Tsongas ran *on honesty*, which is pretty much a travesty if you're lying about something so important.

    (Of course, Wilson wanted a third term in 1920, which is at least as bad, but then again I'm also happy to Wilson-bash).

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  7. Thanks for the replies. I didn't know (or remember) that he was diagnosed when he was running. That's far worse than Edwards in 2008.

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  8. Whoa...didn't Kerry win Iowa and New Hampshire?

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  9. OTOH with FDR (and I'm a big fan) he basically lucked out in having a top-notch successor (unless you know of any evidence that he'd really considered Truman beyond some vague notions of "balance"), and for all we know, Tsongas could've picked a great VP, too.

    I think the real difference is that FDR's death necessitated a war time transition between two members of the same administration, who ran on the same platform- and thus, no national campaign was used to pick FDR's successor. It's reasonable to assume that that would be a lot smoother than completely changing administrations and using a national campaign to pick the new one. And in war time, smoothness was probably a high priority.

    Besides, this was FDR- he probably never even CONSIDERED that he could die.

    That overriding concern of smoothness-in-transition wasn't present for Tsongas, though; there was no external agitation on the scale of World War II, so his dishonesty to the voters isn't balanced out by some greater concern. And without knowing who he'd pick as VP, we have little assurance that he would've picked someone who governed reasonably like him (which Truman more or less did, though in a rather coarser way).

    I'm just really curious as to what made Tsongas decide he could possibly do this. He'd been out of office since '85, right? Had he become the leader of a political movement, like Reagan, or darted around the country collecting chits, like Nixon? What made him think he was still a vital part of the national conversation?

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