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Opinion

John E. Sununu | The Iowa caucuses

Primaries may be messy, but they make candidates stronger

File/The Boston Globe

Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, campaign in New Hampshire for the 1976 primary.

THERE’S NOTHING like the strange design and random outcome of the Iowa caucuses to break up the clean, fresh slate of the New Year. If you’re in the Ron Paul camp, polling well and running an excellent grassroots operation in the Hawkeye state, everything is going according to plan. If you are anyone else in the Iowa Republican establishment, you’ve been in a low-grade panic for weeks. High-ranking talking heads like Governor Terry Branstad, conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, and members of Congress have gone to the airwaves to explain that Iowa isn’t as strange — or irrelevant — as it looks.

The only bad news in this isn’t really news at all: Iowa has never been a good indicator of the eventual Republican nominee. For candidates like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, the shine from their caucus successes faded fast, but for the political media, the predictable unpredictability of Iowa is good for business. The weird outcome creates an opportunity to carry on with two conventional — but meaningless — narratives of the campaign season: who is or isn’t “electable’’ and why no one can “break out of the pack.’’

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These stories are easy to write or air, but the themes run counter to the way campaigns actually work. The very point of a primary system is to elect the strongest and therefore most “electable’’ nominee. Despite evidence that this works quite well in practice, the press often views primaries as random nominee generators driven by the whims of some vaguely defined “base.’’

Tough primary campaigns strengthened Ronald Reagan in the run-up to the 1980 elections and helped George H. W. Bush put media-driven questions about the “wimp factor’’ to rest in 1988. Tough primaries don’t weaken candidates or leave them “bloodied’’ or “scarred.’’ To the contrary, they left Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain stronger then when the campaign first began. Most important, presidential primaries vet candidates more effectively than any other process, which is why choosing a running mate who has campaigned for the presidency is always the safest choice.

History not only demonstrates that candidates are strengthened by primaries, it also reveals that there is no such thing as an “unelectable’’ nominee. Party choices, Democratic or Republican, are always viewed as strong competitive candidates coming out of the conventions. To be sure, that is no indication of ultimate success; but it exposes the pointless nature of the hypothetical question, “if candidate X gets the nomination, can he win?’’ This is true even for those choices who - in hindsight - failed spectacularly. Mike Dukakis led George H. W. Bush in national polls coming out of the Democratic convention in late August of 1988; Walter Mondale and Bob Dole were viewed as strong credible nominees heading into the fall campaigns in 1984 and 1996.

The same ignorance of history underlies tired media commentary suggesting that Republicans aren’t very excited about their choices because no one has been able to “break out of the pack’’ in national polls. In fact, no presidential candidate ever breaks out of the pack in October, or November, or even December. Ronald Reagan failed to win the Iowa caucuses, and became known for his defining debate line “I’m paying for this microphone’’ on the way to victory in New Hampshire - in February! In a similar way, New Hampshire was a defining moment for “Comeback Kid’’ Bill Clinton, but even then, it was weeks before he began to pull ahead.

Concerns about Republican candidates being “stuck’’ with low poll numbers reflect pundits’ laziness at best and their biases at worst. Rest assured, pundits, someone will break out of the pack; and when it happens, it will happen fast. Iowa’s typically muddled result may provide another week or so to replay the same misguided conventional wisdom about the “confusing situation,’’ “unsatisfied voters’’ and the possibility of it going “all the way to the convention!’’ (It never does.) Then the quick three-week cadence of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida will bring them all back to earth.

Yes, tomorrow’s result in Iowa will be hard to interpret. The caucus is an unusual system, and rarely reflects the broader Republican consensus. But the primary is meant to be a long process - a test - that forces candidates to organize, raise resources, sharpen their message, and build a broad base. Like democracy itself, it can be a bit messy; but it remains far better than the alternatives.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.

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