Politics & Policy

Why GOP Elites Hate Iowa

Candidate Mitt Romney in an Iowa cornfield in 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
And why none of them seem to know what to do about it

The Iowa Republican party made an example out of GOP digital strategist Liz Mair.

After Mair was brought aboard Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s nascent presidential campaign, earlier Tweets surfaced in which she appeared to criticize Iowa, Iowans, and the state’s outsize role in presidential politics. State party officials made such a loud, public stink that Walker and Mair felt compelled to part ways.

Consultants, strategists, and staffers were already reluctant to publicly criticize the state that begins the GOP presidential nominee-selection process. They didn’t want to be quoted doing so, either, lest their current or future employers find themselves accused of insufficient enthusiasm for the Hawkeye State’s key role in selecting the party’s presidential nominee. But ruthless enforcement of the Iowa Omerta doesn’t mean that complaints about the state’s disproportionate power in narrowing the GOP field have disappeared altogether. As the 2016 race heats up, Republican insiders’ grumbling about Iowa is louder than ever – and no one seems to know how to fix the problem.

The Republican National Committee’s post-2012 autopsy evaluated a host of issues relating to how the party selects its presidential nominee, but chose to avoid the question of which state ought to go first. Ari Fleischer, one of the five members of the RNC’s review panel, said their effort didn’t examine whether the order of the states should be changed; the topic was “too far for what our charge was.”

One common gripe about Iowa concerns state Republicans’ choice to use a caucus instead of a primary. Both Republicans and Democrats in the state use primaries to select their nominees for Senate, governor, and other statewide offices, and turnout in those races is significantly higher than in the presidential caucuses – even with lower stakes, less media coverage, and fewer resources spent by the candidates.

In 2014, 158,000 people voted in the Senate primary, with Joni Ernst winning 56 percent in a five-candidate field. In 2010, 201,120 Iowa Republicans voted in a primary where incumbent senator Chuck Grassley ran unopposed; 227,000 Iowa Republicans voted in the gubernatorial primary. By comparison, in 2012, just 121,000 people participated in the state’s Republican caucus. The RNC’s post-2012 report concluded that caucuses limited the growth of the party and recommended against them.

Fleischer notes that while Iowa’s participation rate is high for a caucus, he still thinks a primary would be a better option.

#related#“I still, to this day think the party would benefit from higher turnout, and that includes if the Iowa caucus would go to primary,” Fleischer said, adding that the order of the early states ought to be up for review in future cycles. “I think everything should be looked at. I do think it’s healthy to revisit these issues at this every four years. Nothing is written in stone . . . or wheat.”

The caucus format supposedly ensures that the nominating process represents the voices of only true Republicans, those who care most about the choice and are willing to commit a whole evening to participating in the process. But there’s no guarantee that those who show up are actually Republicans, since voters can join or switch their affiliation to the GOP on the night of the caucus.

Then there is the famous Iowa straw poll. Some consultants complain that the state party uses the event to shake campaigns down for cash. The Des Moines Register reported that the poll “brought in $1.5 million before expenses in 2011, including the proceeds from the Fox News debate two days earlier. The net was close to half of the revenue.” That money is raised in large part by charging candidates and campaigns for everything imaginable, often at prices that seem exorbitant.

“Iowa in its infinite charm, sticks up every candidate that walks through there for enormous sums of money,” says one veteran consultant who helped lead a candidate to victory in the caucuses.

And in the case of the straw poll, a campaign is most likely spending all that cash just to avoid an embarrassing loss. The poll’s ability to eliminate candidates who perform poorly is clear — just ask Tim Pawlenty. But its power to offer a genuine and lasting boost to the winner is doubtful; ask 2011 winner Michele Bachmann, 2007 winner Mitt Romney, 1995 co-winner Phil Gramm, or 1987 winner Pat Robertson. Not only did none of them go on to win the GOP nomination – none of them even won the subsequent Iowa caucuses.

After the straw poll, there is the grind of campaigning itself. Iowa’s caucus-goers reward time-intensive campaign methods that don’t translate well to a national race: coming early, coming often, and maximizing personal exposure to voters in small groups, whether at county party meetings, town hall-style gatherings, or impromptu visits to local diners.

All of this to appeal to a caucus-going constituency that, at least demographically, doesn’t represent GOP voters nationwide. According to an entrance poll of the 2012 Iowa caucus-goers, conducted by Edison Research for the Associated Press, 57 percent described themselves as Evangelical or born-again Christians.

“That’s not our party, and that’s not our country,” one self-described Christian conservative political consultant admits.

Another consultant not active with a presidential campaign says that the campaigns must appeal to the caucus’s demographics by showcasing the candidate’s Christian faith in the most ostentatious manner possible: “Why did Ted Cruz announce his presidential campaign in the country’s largest Christian university, and have a lot of evangelical Christian kids applauding the whole time?”

Such demographic pandering often has the consequence of producing a victor with limited national viability and with little chance of becoming the party’s nominee. The two most recent Iowa caucus winners, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, generated enthusiastic responses from conservative Christians but apathy, and even antipathy, from other corners of the Republican Party. In 2008, Huckabee didn’t win again until Super Tuesday; in 2012, Santorum didn’t win again for another five weeks, carrying Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota.

At bottom, all of the hushed complaints about Iowa stem from the state’s prized position at the top of the nominating calendar. The only institution with the power to dramatically alter the order of states in the presidential nomination process is the RNC. But the 2013 report offered a slightly schizophrenic assessment of whether Iowa and other states that traditionally began the process should keep their privileged position.

At one point, the report said, “the Party should strongly consider a regional primary system or some other form of a major reorganization instead of the current system,” which it referred to as “a long, winding, often random road that makes little sense.”

But a paragraph later, the report said, “newly organized primaries would begin only after the ‘carve-out’ states have held their individual elections” – a nod to the “traditions of several states that have early nominating contests.”

We’ll know in a year whether, once again, a candidate who spends more time in the state than anyone else manages to win an evangelical Christian-dominated caucus with small turnout, before failing to make much of a splash anywhere else. If that pattern holds, the grumbling about Iowa’s leading role — so effectively stifled by the state party for now — may become more public. And at that point, the RNC may find it hard to defer to tradition any longer.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online.

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