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Does Iowa Still Matter?

In my last post, I mentioned Rudy Giuliani’s strategy for winning the Republican nomination: Skip Iowa and base a campaign around New Hampshire. He is not the first candidate this year to announce such a move (since Giuliani hasn’t declared yet, his announcement is purely hypothetical). So it’s worth pondering: Does Iowa still matter?

The Iowa caucuses hold a peculiar place on the path to the Republican nomination. But it’s fair to wonder if the state really is the bellwether Iowans proclaim it to be, at least as compared with New Hampshire, which holds the first primary. A look at the data shows just how different the preferences of the two states’ voters can be and how that will impact this election.Since 1976, there have been nine presidential elections. The candidate who won Iowa won the Republican nomination six times (67 percent). The candidate who won New Hampshire won seven times (78 percent). But we can clean that up by eliminating the four elections in which there was an incumbent Republican president, as there is none this election. Of the remaining five election years, the candidate who won Iowa won the GOP nomination twice (40 percent). New Hampshire predicted the eventual GOP nominee three of those five (60 percent). It’s not a terribly wide deviation, but it certainly doesn’t show Iowa to be essential.

And here’s where it gets interesting. In those five “open” election years, Iowa and New Hampshire never produced the same winner. That’s because it’s always been about more than just statistics and probabilities. As in past years, there is a significant difference between the types of candidates who are competing in Iowa this election and those who are competing in New Hampshire. In the Politico story I linked to in my last post, Giuliani says if he runs, his focus will be on his economic record, not foreign policy. He has also indicated he has no interest in defending the conservative position on same-sex marriage. Here there is consistency among the candidates. Mitt Romney is also skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, and he too is concentrating on his economic record and eschewing culture war politics. Same goes for Jon Huntsman, who was a supporter of civil unions (and many think same-sex marriage as well) as governor of Utah, and he will be concentrating on job creation.

The candidates competing in Iowa, however, are all making a strong pitch to social conservative voters. Michele Bachmann has the reputation as perhaps the staunchest opponent of same-sex marriage in the GOP field, though an argument can be made that Rick Santorum holds that distinction. Tim Pawlenty is a favorite of the pro-life crowd and has taken a conservative stance on same-sex marriage.

The lore surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire is built on the retail politicking it takes to win those states. And although New Hampshire seems to be slightly better at picking the eventual nominee, Iowa takes some pride in this. What many voters like about the Iowa caucuses is that winning them depends a lot less on money and campaign machines. But it also produces less realistic outcomes, because protest candidates and vanity insurgents don’t always end up finishing the race.

Additionally, while Iowa may be able to generate momentum for a candidate as the first contest on the nominating schedule, New Hampshire can easily slow or stop that momentum–though its ability to do so will be determined in part by which primaries follow. (If it’s Nevada and Michigan again, it could easily give Romney three wins in a row.)

The most significant factor, though, is the message. The social conservative message is important to many GOP primary voters, but it’s not the leading issue nationwide. The economy will dominate the debates, and in this respect, the candidates focusing on New Hampshire may have the right message, regardless of the geography.