Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents, John H. Sununu, the former Granite State governor, used to observe. Patronizing, perhaps, but if you substitute nominees for presidents, it’s a reasonably accurate description on the Republican side. New Hampshire’s primary is better than Iowa’s caucuses when it comes to elevating the candidate who goes on to become the GOP nominee.
Why, then, are the Republican candidates spending so much time in the Hawkeye State this cycle? In part, because Iowa plays some role in winnowing the field — and few candidates want to take the risk of being winnowed out.
But this year, it’s also because the road to the nomination chosen by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, runs through Iowa. (To a lesser degree, it did so for former vice president Mike Pence as well, but he is out of the race.) DeSantis opted to run as a divisive culture warrior, Donald Trump’s more competent mini-me. That’s meant emphasizing combative conservative stands on hot-button social issues like restricting medical services for transgender youth more than campaigning on economic, fiscal, and foreign policy concerns.
That focus made Iowa look like a fertile field for his campaign. Evangelical voters hold disproportionate sway in the time-and-commitment-intensive GOP caucuses. They get invested in plucking books from school libraries, and tend to see trans acceptance as an abomination and to favor strict bans on abortion. They get exercised about social matters that are forged into wedge issues. Most of those are of less heightened concern to the more libertarian conservatives who populate New Hampshire’s GOP universe.
The DeSantis campaign also targeted Iowa because it looked like a place where the Florida governor could engage the former president early, and on favorable ground. Trump, after all, lost Iowa to social conservative Ted Cruz in 2016. It was only after delivering three hard-right, abortion-rights-overturning Supreme Court justices that the twice-divorced philanderer and sexual harasser was recast as a redeemed-sinner-cum-agent-of-divine-will, at least to many evangelicals.
With Trump off-balance from his multiple indictments, DeSantis saw an opportunity to send him reeling to the canvas early in the fight — and then move to New Hampshire as the one true challenger to the former president.
Alas for DeSantis, grand plans butter no parsnips if the candidate himself is akin to a tablespoon of castor oil. That is, a charmless, humor-impaired know-it-all. No surprise, then, that DeSantis hasn’t captivated Iowa, capital of the American Nice Belt.
Even if he had, however, the DeSantis campaign would still run afoul of the reality undergirding Sununu’s observation. Simply put, success in the lead-off caucuses hardly ever translates into victory in the first-in-the-nation primary.
In 2012, it appeared that Mitt Romney had eked out a win in Iowa before going on to a comfortable victory in New Hampshire. But it was short-lived: When the full Iowa results were tallied, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a hard-right hopeful, had actually logged the narrowest of victories there.
Which tells you something about Iowa. In recent contests, it has had a habit of rewarding far-right social conservatives who have limited appeal to the middle, even the GOP middle. In 2008, Mike Huckabee, Baptist minister turned Arkansas governor, won in Iowa. And though near-neighbor Bob Dole prevailed in Iowa in 1988, what was truly notable that year was that televangelist Pat Robertson, a man who thought he had the prayer-power to alter the course of a hurricane (something Trump would later attempt with a Sharpie), actually finished ahead of sitting vice president George H.W. Bush.
And how did those religious candidates fare in New Hampshire? In 2008, John McCain won the Granite State, while Huckabee finished a distant third. In 1988, Bush bounced back to beat Dole there, with Robertson relegated to a dismal fifth.
Since 1980, New Hampshire has picked the eventual Republican nominee five times, Iowa just twice. Logic, then, would argue against Republicans making such a heavy investment in Iowa. In belated recognition of that, DeSantis is now trying to open a second front in South Carolina, which holds the second real primary (Nevada’s is an entirely symbolic affair), but also happens to be Nikki Haley’s home state.
But DeSantis has probably planted his flag in Iowa for too long. Even if the Florida governor does somehow beat Trump in the Hawkeye State, history suggests it won’t help him in New Hampshire. DeSantis has made his Midwestern political bed – and now he’s got to lie in it.