Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney each hail from the establishment wing of the Republican Party and each has an interest in minimizing the influence of the Tea Party types, the religious fundamentalists, and the candidates whom John McCain, in a candid moment, aptly described as “the wacko birds.”
Here’s a way the two could do all of that in one fell swoop: Skip the Iowa caucuses.
There’s ample reason and justification for doing so.
Start with democratic principles. Presidential nominating processes should put an emphasis on ease of participation for voters. Iowa doesn’t. It’s a complicated campaign courtship not of your average Iowan but of activists committed enough to turn out on a winter night and spend an hour or more maneuvering for their candidate.
On the Republican side, that gives disproportionate influence to the evangelicals, some of whom are, quite literally, looking for a signal from God about their vote. In 2012, I explored that idea with a couple of them. Did they really think their deity was 1) following the Iowa campaign and 2) had a favorite he wanted them to flock to? They did.
Well, why wouldn’t he, say, simply emblazon a name across acres of corn stubble? Because he didn’t want it to be that easy, one explained; rather, he wanted them to have to puzzle out his inclination.
I say this not to mock the sincere beliefs of hyper-religious folk but to point out that the caucuses give outsized influence to activists who see the world in a way most of the country doesn’t. Which is why Iowa often clocks in with unrealistically strong showings for hopefuls who have little chance of winning the GOP nomination, much less of being elected president.
For example, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson finished a strong second to regional favorite Bob Dole in 1988, helping consign Vice President — and eventual GOP nominee and general election victor — George H.W. Bush to a distant third.
Baptist minister-turned-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee actually won the caucuses in 2008. Last time around, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, roundly rejected by his own state in his 2006 reelection bid, eked out a razor-thin victory in Iowa after spending months courting religious voters.
Now, it was obvious from the start that neither Huckabee nor Santorum had a real chance of becoming president. Not then, not now, not ever. But Iowa gave each a boost. Both may be back in the hunt in 2016, not because their national prospects have gotten any better but because they have footholds in Iowa.
Indeed, in the six contested GOP races from 1980 on, the Hawkeye State has gone for the eventual nominee just twice: with Midwestern favorite Bob Dole in 1996 and with consensus frontrunner George W. Bush in 2000. Even if you call 2012 a Santorum-Romney tie, Iowa’s track record is only 50 percent.
Usually, Iowa caucus-goers go one way, New Hampshire primary voters quite another. The social-issues-heavy religious candidates that Iowa tends to favor generally don’t fare well in flinty, skeptical, libertarian New Hampshire.
Still, the more mainstream candidates do find themselves pushed to the right in Iowa. One can see that dynamic starting already, with ardent right-wing hopefuls like Texas Senator Ted Cruz laying down would-be tests of conservative credibility at the weekend “Iowa Freedom Summit,” an event co-hosted by anti-immigration-reform hard-liner US Representative Steve King.
Bush and Romney both took a pass on that event. Good for them. Imagine if they took a page from John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 playbook and simply said they didn’t plan to compete in Iowa in any meaningful way. And, further, that they considered the New Hampshire primary the real start of the campaign.
That would largely leave Iowa to the religious conservatives, Tea Party types, and regional and second-tier figures. Oh yes, and if Donald Trump gets in, the certified buffoons.
It’s a move that would make sense on both principles and politics. And, if past is prologue, Bush and Romney would lose little by skipping Iowa — except the burden of competing in a caucus state that demands a huge amount of time but imparts little or no momentum.