Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Really Can't Skip Iowa

John McCain is now advising presidential candidates to more-or-less skip Iowa just like he did (well...I should be fair.  He doesn't quite say that he skipped Iowa, or that Iowa doesn't matter at all, but as I read it that's basically his meaning).  Ed Kilgore basically has the goods on why this is a foolish strategy:
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 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.


  1. I completely agree, Jonathan. No one can skip Iowa. It is suicide.

    McCain didn't skip Iowa. He bottomed out in 2007, scaled back his operations there to focus on New Hampshire and quickly began to shift some resources (visits included) to Iowa when he began to rebound some in the last few weeks prior to Iowa on January 3.

    It is unfortunate that Slate removed the functionality of its Map the Candidates. That's usually what I lean on when these resources/visits issues come up. Also unfortunate is that I only cataloged the aggregate visits totals for each state (so blinded by my own research) instead of for each candidate. Oh well.

  2. Edwards actually finished second in Iowa. Hillary finished third.

  3. There's a caveat: you can skip Iowa if a sitting senator from Iowa is running, i.e. Tom Harkin.

  4. Anon951, that is what happened in 1992, but there is no guarantee that the "skip Iowa when an Iowan is running" strategy would prove successful again. It seems that there is an opportunity there for opposing candidates. Beat the Iowa candidate and you've destroyed their campaign. One might even be able to completely derail the Iowan's candidacy with a better than expected outcome.

    Given the most often talked about candidates in the GOP, the point seems moot for 2012. I don't think Chuck Grassley or Terry Branstad are going to run. Bob Dole attempted to play the "I'm from near Iowa" card in his last two runs with mixed success. He won, but fought the "he was suppose to win" counter afterward.


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