Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Join Us At the Picnic

Mark Ambinder has an interesting post up today with some good reporting about GOP thoughts about strategy for Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential nomination process:
Unless you're beloved by conservative Christians, don't bother campaigning in Iowa. That's one lesson learned by some strategists allied with several potential 2012 presidential candidates. Others see it differently. The question applies most to Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) and Ex-Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).
My reaction is that "skip Iowa" is and has always been an oddly tempting but in no way viable strategy.

The only candidate since the current nomination process and its Iowa-first schedule was established to skip a contested Iowa and still win the nomination was John McCain in 2008. So, was McCain a fluke or a new trend? Well, he was a fluke. First of all, while he more or less skipped Iowa, he did have enough of a campaign in place there to finish just a few (under 500) votes out of third place in the GOP field. In other words, he's barely an exception to the rule to begin with. Second, McCain couldn't have had better circumstances. The winner in Iowa was a little-known contender who had already drawn the wrath of important party constituencies. The third place finisher (Fred Thompson) was in the midst of running the most lackadaisical campaign in memory, and basically disqualified himself in subsequent contests. So McCain wound up one of three viable candidates despite Iowa, and he was able to use his other resources to prevail. And that's not all. National media attention from Iowa in 2008 was split between the parties, and (at least in my memory -- I haven't seen any studies on it) I'm fairly sure that well over half of the national media attention was devoted to the Obama/Clinton side of things, thus further diluting the effect of Iowa on the Republican side.

None of these factors will be in play for the candidates rumored to be thinking of skipping Iowa in 2012. Without Democrats, the winner of Iowa (or at least the expectation-beater; don't forget Gary Hart '84) will receive a blast of publicity, most likely very positive publicity. A strong candidate going into the caucuses who does badly (but still top three) will also receive plenty of publicity, as Hillary Clinton did in 2008 and George H.W. Bush did in 1988. That leaves precious little for the candidate(s) who sit out and wait for the next round.

Depending on the field, I can imagine a strategy for Romney that would involve him running a limited Iowa campaign, keeping expectations low, and trying to pick off third place without spending much time or money. Romney didn't exactly demonstrate a great reservoir of support in New Hampshire in '08, but he was governor next door and may enter 2012 as the early frontrunner, so it's at least possible to imagine that working out. The idea that Tim Pawlenty could it successfully is just plain silly, I think -- regardless of who is in the field, either someone is going to come out of Iowa the overwhelming favorite (in which case it's hard to imagine Pawlenty recovering) or multiple candidates are going to come out of Iowa with strong story lines, such as one candidate who is an Iowa winner and another who is leading in national polls (in which case it's hard to see how Pawlenty wouldn't get lost in the shuffle). Indeed, that logic would almost certainly sink Romney as well if he just plain skipped Iowa.

Good report by Ambinder, though -- this is the kind of stuff that political junkies just can't get enough of.


  1. Well, most of the Democrats running in 1992 "skipped" Iowa because Tom Harkin was running. Iowa was a non-event that year and New Hampshire became the point at which the "Comeback Kid" emerged; the real start to that nomination race.

    But there aren't any Iowans on the horizon who look to be potential 2012 contenders. It is a factor, then, but a non-factor for 2012 from the looks of it.

    Here's a bit more from last week when the Des Moines Register was pushing the "no one's coming to Iowa for 2012" meme.

  2. Yup -- check carefully above, and you'll see that I referred to "contested Iowa," in order to account for 1992.

    I suppose that if all the other candidates agreed to concede it to Huckabee, they could turn it into an uncontested caucus. But the incentive to cheat and try to finish 2nd would be real strong (that even happened in the Harkin year), and once one candidate cheated, the press would resume covering it as a normal contested year, and everyone else would have to compete or suffer the consequences.

  3. This is a brilliant blog, and I'm kicking myself for not noticing it earlier. Mr Bernstein, my hat goes off to you.

    However...your assumptions that Pawlenty will get 'lost in the shuffle' seem a bit presumptuous, especially given the absurd amount of time we have left untl the primaries. Pawlenty seems to be running the hardest of any 'candidate' so far (because, well, he's so far back). He's talented. He's acceptable to all the constituencies. Dukakis was a blip in '85, and yet the shaky nominal frontrunner by early 1988; similarly Clinton in '92, as much as 'the comeback kid' narrative sprung up. (Clinton was leading national polls of actual contenders, minus Cuomo, by early '92, faltered after Flowers, but kept on walking.) I think that by the start of the season Pawlenty has as much chance of being a heavyweight contender as anyone.

  4. Douglas,

    Thanks for the nice comments.

    On Pawlenty -- I'm saying he'll get lost in the shuffle if he skips Iowa. If he competes there, then, sure, he has every chance of being a serious contender. But there's no way, at least in my view, that he would be such a standout that he could afford to skip Iowa.


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