It has become perfectly clear that coastal Republicans and the GOP’s Beltway-based class of political professionals – the people who are in the business of running campaigns – are suspicious of Iowa’s caucuses and the Hawkeye State’s heelers who determine their results. The feeling is mutual.
Since the Iowa GOP has compelled Scott Walker’s campaign to jettison his digital strategist simply because she said some disparaging things about Iowa’s political culture, it’s clear that this state still commands an unparalleled level of influence over both party’s presidential nominating processes.
This fit of pique from Iowa-based Republicans was understandable, but it might also have been a miscalculation. The accomplished and now uncommitted campaign operative Liz Mair had built up much more goodwill in the right-leaning commentary community than has Iowa’s GOP. Today, not only have the Hawkeyes lost the campaign operative class, but they have also alienated many of the Republican Party’s opinion leaders.
“The point here is that the political hobgoblins who cooked up this ambush were never going after Liz,” Jazz Shaw observed. “Nor were they particularly offended on a personal level on behalf of poor Iowa. They were looking for a way to embarrass Walker and get in a quick, cheap shot to weaken his position as a presidential candidate in the primaries.”
In that effort, the Iowa GOP was happily and eagerly used by their political opponents.
“The Iowa Caucus picked Bush over Reagan in 1980, Dole over Bush in 1988, Huckabee over McCain in 2008, and Santorum over Romney in 2012,” RedState’s Erick Erickson noted. “It’s straw poll has only picked the right candidate once since 1979.”
“I like Iowa. I’ve been there many times. But the caucuses have turned into something like a permanent subsidy for the political class of Iowa,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg lamented. “What is supposed to be a democratic test of candidates in ‘real America’ often morphs into a playground for savvy political consultants who’ve mastered a single skill: helping out-of-state politicians navigate their way around Iowa’s political landscape.”
Yes, the Iowa GOP might have miscalculated, but the state’s residents are perfectly justified in finding offense in comments that were designed to be offensive. Some might have called Mair’s statements on Twitter tough love, but the love was not readily apparent. Moreover, the conventional wisdom expressed by Erickson and others – leading to the unspoken conviction that Iowa is not only unrepresentative of the GOP as a whole but also unduly demanding of tribute from Washington – may not be entirely fair.
Yes, Iowa’s caucus-goers missed the mark in the last two cycles. The results of the caucuses are too often predetermined by figures like The Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats. His endorsement has gone to the caucus winner more often than not. But Iowa’s caucus-goers’ collective decision to buck the consensus opinion shared by a majority of national Republicans is a relatively recent phenomenon.
“Iowa picks corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents,” the derisive old saying goes. Well, not entirely. In an earlier decade, the Republicans who voted in the nation’s first primary election in New Hampshire might also have been considered woefully out of step with the national GOP.
In 2000, George W. Bush won in Iowa and went on to secure the nomination. He achieved this feat, however, after suffering a resounding loss in New Hampshire to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Four years prior, Granite State voters narrowly gave their imprimatur to Patrick Buchanan despite the fact that Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) emerged from the Iowa caucuses victorious. Talk about a fringe candidacy with a limited appeal. The notion that Iowa’s Republicans are blinkered by narrow interests whereas New Hampshire’s primary voters are sober and broadly representative is undone by a cursory review of the electoral history of the 1990s.
Moreover, the notion expressed by some, including Home Depot co-founder and Chris Christie backer Ken Langone, that the Iowa Caucuses did not help Rick Santorum after he won that contest by merely one-tenth of a percentage point is equally unfounded. Though the 2012 primary race was long and bitter, and it saw many candidates vying to serve as an alternative to Mitt Romney rise and fall, only Santorum was left standing by the spring. The former Pennsylvania senator waged the fight against Romney as long as he could, and he didn’t suspend his campaign until April after he secured victories in states like Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. There should be little doubt that it was Santorum’s come-from-behind victory in Iowa that established him as a nationally viable candidate.
For those on the right who lament Iowa’s determination to back socially conservative candidates over more electable centrist figures, the 2012 results should also be encouraging. The nation went to bed on the night of the caucuses under the impression that Romney won that race. Had he gone on to then win in New Hampshire, the primary cycle would have been over. In that event, Romney would have entered the 2012 election a unity candidate. Instead, he fought a prolonged fight and emerged as a tarnished nominee for whom many Republicans had to voice their support through gritted teeth. It’s entirely possible that Iowa could still produce a unity candidate if that one-tenth of one percent shifts toward the establishment in 2016.
As for Iowa’s professional political agitators who demand and receive pandering from their candidates on matters like ethanol subsidies, that remains a vexing condition. But perhaps that, too, is overstated.
Among the contentions Mair made that frustrated Iowans was her claim that the Hawkeye State’s attachment to taxpayer-funded agricultural subsidies is the farthest thing from conservatism. But, according to Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Jacobs, that’s a mischaracterization of the issues regarding the federal subsidization of alternative fuels.
“No ethanol subsidy existed when Mair tweeted that,” she wrote after noting Mair’s contention that Iowans are uniquely dependent on the federal government. “The 45-cents-a-gallon subsidy the federal government paid to ethanol blenders expired in 2011. Subsidies for biodiesel and cellulosic renewable fuels expired at the end of 2014. But there is still a federal mandate that requires a certain amount of ethanol be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply every year.”
Scott Walker took a fair bit of heat from the right and the left when he expressed support for federal pro-ethanol rules despite having opposed them for years. “With regard to ethanol, he has been clear he supports a phaseout of the existing mandate, but believes we have to do it responsibly,” said Walker advisor Rick Wiley. It’s perhaps encouraging if not commendable that Iowa’s GOP political establishment merely demanded Walker renounce Mair rather than his determination to end the ethanol mandate as president.
All this is a devil’s advocate’s take. Iowa’s GOP operatives have embarrassed themselves with this tantrum over the widely-shared sentiments of one campaign consultant with no policy role. It is clear that Iowans demand to be pandered to, and their demands are often met. That is inauspicious for the political culture. Those who contend, however, that Iowa is no longer relevant to the political process are selectively reading political history. Iowa is extraordinarily relevant, which is perhaps why this state so often gets what it wants.