Editor’s note: This piece by Gary Geipel appeared in the February 7, 2000, issue of National Review.
Iowa’s precinct caucuses and a Mafia protection racket: The comparison is irresistible. In both cases, participation is almost always mandatory, there are no real benefits, large sums of money are wasted, and everyone keeps his mouth shut because too many thugs have a piece of the action.
Let’s carry the analogy forward: It’s time for someone to start singing to the cops about Iowa, because too many people are getting hurt.
Texas governor George W. Bush, this year’s Iowa champion, should pray that the caucuses are meaningless, because if they have any meaning at all, it’s as a predictor of ultimate defeat. No Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses has ever gone on to win the White House. In fact, it’s been 20 years since even a second-place GOP finisher in Iowa, Ronald Reagan, went on to capture the real prize.
The inaccuracy of the Iowa barometer could be forgiven if the three great myths of the caucuses stood up to examination. First, we are led to believe, Iowa is a great political test market: a cross-section of Americans well suited to choosing a nominee. Second, Iowans are the nation’s political control group. They make their decisions on the basis of personal encounters with the candidates-immune to media manipulation, advertisements, and spin-doctoring. Third, Iowa is the poor candidate’s heaven, a place where an aspiring president willing to sleep in private homes and eat in lots of diners can rise to the top.
Those three myths are not just flawed, they are dead-wrong.
It is difficult to imagine a state less representative of the contemporary U.S. electorate than Iowa. In part, this is to Iowa’s credit. Its people remain largely unfamiliar with violent crime, failing schools, urban congestion, or large-scale poverty. However-owing to the state’s unusual demography and economic structure-Iowans also remain largely unfamiliar with immigration, cultural diversity, high-tech industry, foreign investment, or rapid growth.
Iowa’s political culture, too, is a world unto itself. The rest of the nation perceives Iowa as “moderate,” but that is true only as a mathematical average. In practice, Iowa does not produce broad-based centrists so much as it swings between opposites. Thus, the popular 16- year governorship of farm-boy conservative Terry Branstad gave way seamlessly last year to the governorship of liberal trial lawyer Tom Vilsack; and the recent mayoral race in Cedar Rapids, the state’s second- largest city, pitted a wealthy liberal with a gay-rights agenda against a fundamentalist preacher.
Even if most Iowans turned out for the caucuses, therefore, the caucuses would not resemble a meaningful cross-section of America-but most Iowans do not turn out for the caucuses. In a good year, 15 percent of Iowa’s registered Re publicans-no more than 100,000 people-attend a caucus. These folks, called “likely caucus-goers” by pollsters, are an even less meaningful sub-sample of an already eccentric whole.
Most caucus-going Republicans fall into one of two groups. There is the old-guard, don’t-rock-the-boat group, for whom the choice to become a Republican was like the choice of Kiwanis over Rotary-something you did because that’s what your dad did, or because that’s the kind of neighborhood you live in. And then there is the new-guard, let’s-swamp- the-boat group, who chose Repub licanism as a tactical convenience in pursuit of particular agendas (most frequently, ending abortion and protecting U.S. sovereignty). Newcomers who foolishly view the Republican party as a real-world coalition of Americans united to advance a broad- based political agenda, generally attend one county GOP meeting in Iowa- and then run away screaming, never to be seen again.
It is therefore no surprise that Iowa always favors two kinds of candidate. The old guard invariably echoes the “safe choice” of the national GOP establishment, as long as the chosen one has made the appropriate bows to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status: George W. in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, and the first George Bush in 1980. (This Bush’s third- place showing in 1988 was the exception that proved the rule-a slap on the wrist because he appeared to take Iowa for granted.)
The new guard in Iowa, which made its first big stand in the 1988 GOP caucuses, believes that it has the power to change the very nature of politics. This group rewards the candidates who-unblemished by any success of their own at the ballot box-pander to the new guard’s indifference to party unity, outreach, incrementalism, and other means of electing people and advancing causes.
Iowa saves its greatest brutality for movement conservatives who have made the mistake of getting themselves elected somewhere and engaging in the real work of government. Just ask Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, and Dan Quayle. They lacked the blessing of the media and the GOP establishment. They were not willing to narrow-cast themselves for the single-issue activists. So they found almost no “likely caucus-goers” to punch their tickets. The most frequent concern voiced about Quayle by Iowa’s new-guard activists was not his supposed “image problem,” but his decision in 1997 to campaign for New Jersey Republican Christine Todd Whitman — bete noire of pro-life activists — in her re-election bid against an equally pro-abortion Democrat.
As to the second myth-the supposed virtues of one-on-one campaigning- operatives in Iowa all know, but rarely admit, that candidate appearances in the state are perfunctory exercises. A candidate must log a certain number of “Iowa days” to prove that he is “taking Iowa seriously.” The regulars show up, get a new photo to add to their collections, eat free food, and then go home to follow the cues passed out by the news media, the TV commercials, and the activist leaders who twist arms. Consider: Gov. Bush led every Iowa poll long before setting foot in the state. His few visits neither helped nor hurt that standing. Meanwhile, hapless Lamar Alexander toured all of the state’s 99 counties to good reviews, and he got the back of Iowa’s hand.
We’re left, finally, with the myth of Iowa as the poor candidate’s heaven. If Jimmy Carter created that myth in 1976, George W. Bush and Steve Forbes finally smashed it at last August’s straw poll in Ames. The Iowa GOP made a small fortune, as the various presidential campaigns supplied the food, entertainment, and transportation; bought all the tickets that Iowans needed to cast their “votes”; and even cleaned up the mess afterwards.
The final vote counts in Ames paralleled candidate expenditures perfectly. Bush and Forbes spent seven figures on the event; they placed first and second. Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer spent six figures; they placed third and fourth. The others spent five figures; they placed further back. At best, then, Iowa has become yet another echo of how much money a candidate has raised.
So let’s review what the Iowa Racket has accomplished for the GOP: It has led to the bizarre proliferation of political novices in the presidential field. It has all but shut down the chances of conservative statesmen to climb the electoral ladder. It has heightened the importance of early money, making it even more difficult for a good candidate to introduce himself. It produces victors who can’t win. So why do we keep going back for more?
That’s where the thugs with a piece of the action come in. Iowa’s own political leaders spread the mythology and play hardball with anyone who won’t buy it (mention to Iowa GOP bosses the name of John McCain, the lone Iowa holdout during this cycle, and prepare to wipe the venom off your suit). Their money and influence is at stake. They get consulting fees and retainers, while even the lowliest statehouse candidates in Iowa can count on fat PAC donations from presidential candidates they pretend to consider.
Some lower-level activists sense that the caucuses do more harm than good in Iowa politics, creating feuds and cliques that hinder the GOP’s local effectiveness. But most want nothing to interfere with the unnatural attention they receive from would-be presidents (“Dan’s Christmas card was nice, but Steve phoned me for the holidays”).
Most home-grown Iowa political reporters know what’s really going on, but the Great Mentioners in Des Moines toe the line to keep alive their CNN guest shots and other national exposure (no single institution has more at stake in the caucuses than the Des Moines Register). Parachuting national reporters rarely grasp the sheer fraudulence of the caucuses. Some have questioned the significance of the straw poll, but they balance that concern against the need for some drama to cover in the off year. Besides, how many national political reporters will agonize over a tradition that weakens the GOP?
Every once in a while, a naive upstart will cry foul, but then bad things start happening to him. Can someone get me a slot in the Witness Protection Program?
— Mr. Geipel was Iowa communications director for the Quayle 2000 campaign.