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Can GOP Candidates Ignore Iowa?

With two years to go until the political world converges on Ames, Iowa for the traditional Straw Poll conducted a few months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, Republicans are pondering whether anyone who is serious about winning the presidency should bother showing up. But the meaningless nature of the quadrennial circus in Ames (the fact that Michele Bachmann won the caucus in 2011 shows how absurd the poll can be) is only part of the problem about Iowa. As the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin writes today, the dominance of the state by the far right and libertarian wings of the GOP is causing a great many in the party to wonder not only whether the disproportionate effort that the state attracts from presidential candidates is worth it but whether contenders with mainstream appeal should even compete there.

Those asking these questions are not wrong. Iowa is an odd choice to be a presidential lab test. It is not only unrepresentative of the nation as a whole but also even of a Republican Party that is whiter and less urban than the rest of the country. Moreover, the dominance of libertarian backers of the Ron and Rand Paul libertarian faction and social conservatives in the state party makes it inhospitable for candidates that are likely to win primaries elsewhere in the country, not to mention have a shot at actually winning the presidency in a general election. But it’s going to take more courage than most political consultants are usually able to muster to get any of them to advise serious candidates to shun Iowa in 2016. As much as 2012 was an illustration of Iowa’s irrelevance to the final results that year, ignoring the locus of political attention for months at the beginning of the primary season could be a serious mistake that could wind up damaging a more mainstream GOP candidate like Chris Christie and giving more conservative rivals an even bigger boost than they might otherwise receive.

On the face of it, it’s going to be tempting for Christie or someone like him in the 2016 race to ignore Iowa. The Ames Straw Poll is a pointless exercise that a more sensible party would scrap because it is more of a financial transaction (whoever buses in the most people and purchases tickets for them wins) than a genuine measure of political support. But that won’t happen because Iowa Republicans use it as a fundraiser. However, the caucus is also problematic because it is the creature of one wing of the party where those who cannot compete for the most right-wing voters seemingly haven’t much of a chance. What then is the point of a candidate with national appeal but not a favorite of Iowa conservatives expending precious time and money on a state they can’t win?

That’s what Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign thought when he didn’t bother trying in Iowa in 2008. His pro-choice views on abortion rendered him a certain loser in Iowa (as well as with the GOP nationwide) and he hadn’t a prayer of winning the caucus. But his absence from the competition left him dead in the water heading into the other primaries where his ultimately doomed candidacy might have fared better.

If Christie were looking for a better model than Giuliani, it would be Mitt Romney’s decision to try to win Iowa in 2008 even though he appeared out of step with the state’s Republicans. A divided field helped Romney with too many conservatives competing for the same votes. Moreover, had we known on the evening of the caucus that Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes—the ultimate result after all the ballots were counted—rather than thinking Romney had emerged as a narrow victor, that would have made things a bit more uncomfortable for the eventual nominee. But by showing up and competing, Romney demonstrated he intended to be the candidate of the whole party and not just those elements that were more likely to support him.

That’s a lesson Christie and any other Republican who thinks the odds are stacked against him in Iowa should ponder.

Like New Hampshire but only more so, Iowans are under the impression that they are entitled to meet presidential candidates personally and think any contender that doesn’t give them several opportunities to do so isn’t really trying. Conferring such a privilege on Iowans that is not given to the rest of the nation doesn’t make much sense. But since both Iowa and New Hampshire are more or less guaranteed their spots on the calendar, it’s not going to change. No matter how right-wing the Iowa GOP is, it’s like a Monday Night Football game: when nobody else is playing, everybody is forced to watch.

As in 2012, the Republican field will likely be crowded with plenty of competition for social conservative votes as well as the possibility that libertarians will be asked to choose between Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. That leaves plenty of room for a Chris Christie (whose credentials on abortion and other social issues make him far more palatable to most Republicans than Giuliani or someone like him) to go to Iowa and, like Romney, do well enough to avoid embarrassment before moving on to other states where right-wingers won’t be as dominant.

Iowa won’t determine the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 any more than it has done any other year (and if you don’t believe me, just ask Presidents Santorum or Huckabee about it). But whether the national party, the candidates, or the media like it or not, it will be the center ring of the political circus for a few months at the end of 2015. Any candidate who ignores it will be making a mistake.


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