POLITICS

Thinking About Skipping The Iowa Caucuses? Better Think Again!

05/14/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated May 14, 2015

Earlier this week, news broke that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was opting out of active participation in this summer's Iowa Straw Poll, the annual event which propelled last year's winner, Michele Bachmann, to ... nowhere in particular, actually.

This year, the Iowa GOP has undertaken something of a renovation on the Iowa Straw Poll, in the hopes of elevating it out of the bog of disregard into which it had fallen. Bush, however, has rather pointedly scheduled an appearance at this year's RedState Gathering (Of The Juggalos?), and has done so in a way that precludes his participation in the straw poll and its attendant festivities -- unlike all the other presidential candidates who will also be attending RedState's four-day event in Atlanta.

But, you know, it's probably OK for Bush to take a pass on the Iowa Straw Poll. After all, Mitt Romney opted out back in 2011, and it hardly hurt him when the Iowa Caucuses finally rolled around.

But what if Bush decided to skip Iowa altogether? Man, I don't know about that.

The possibility that Bush might skip Iowa completely has everyone atitter now, courtesy of a McKay Coppins piece in BuzzFeed in which "three sources with knowledge of Bush's campaign strategy" are intimating that Bush "does not plan to seriously contest the first-in-the-nation caucuses -- and may ultimately skip the state altogether." Yikes!

Naturally, it's essentially speculative. Tim Miller, who left the GOP oppo outfit America Rising to be the Bush campaign's communications director, shows up in Coppins' piece with a strenuous denial: "There is nobody with any shred of authority or proximity to Gov. Bush suggesting that, should he decide to run for president, he skip or ignore Iowa."

Or is there? Per Coppins:

But a top Republican consultant and a high-level fundraiser -- both of whom have been courted by the Bush camp, and requested anonymity to recount private conversations -- said Bush's advisers were explicit that the campaign would not seriously invest in Iowa during the primaries. Similarly, an operative involved in Bush's yet-to-be-announced campaign told BuzzFeed News earlier this year that the state was a low priority.

[...]

According to the two Republicans who were briefed on the broad points of the campaign's primary strategy, Bush's political advisers believe his steadfast support for Common Core education standards and softer immigration policies will make it incredibly difficult for him to woo the conservative caucus-goers, who tend to favor more combative figures like Iowa's 2012 victor Rick Santorum, or Mike Huckabee, who won in 2008.

Is there a case to be made for skipping Iowa? Sure, I guess. One could point out that John McCain basically did so back in 2008, and it didn't prevent him from getting the nomination. Heck, Bill Clinton passed on Iowa back in 1992 and he went on to become president. Writing for The Atlantic back in 2011, Nicole Russell actually advised candidates to skip Iowa, based on premise that, for all the hue and cry about the Iowa Caucuses, they rarely amount to much: "The Iowa caucuses may be first in the nation, but they don't live up to the emphasis placed on them by candidates and the media."

For both Republicans and Democrats, winning Iowa doesn't mean winning the nomination, or the presidency. Compare Iowa's predictive power to that of the South Carolina GOP primary, or to the role of Ohio in the general election. South Carolina has selected the eventual Republican nominee, and Ohio has selected the presidential winner, in every presidential election year since 1980.

Iowa may be first, but it's never been a perfect bellwether. The caucuses offer candidates a chance to prove they can organize well, but they are not even an accurate gauge of the public opinions of most party members, let alone most Iowa voters.

Iowa's Republican caucus-goers have a reputation for being the sort of base voters who tend to favor candidates of the far-right variety, with a special yen for social conservatives. Certainly all of Iowa's prominent kingmakers -- think talk-radio firebrand Steve Deace, Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats, and iconoclast nativist Iowa Rep. Steve King -- represent extremes of rhetoric or policy positions that Jeb Bush doesn't quite match.

Back in January, the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter suggested that "if ever there were a year when establishment candidates like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie should skip [Iowa] all together, this would be it." She continued:

Winning in Iowa proves that you do well among very conservative, evangelical voters. It also shows, as one Iowa veteran has noted, how well a candidate connects at a retail level. But, it simply challenges a candidate's depth not his/her breadth. In fact, to try and win here, a candidate often has to cater so narrowly to this base that they disqualify themselves from the broader electorate (see, Rick Perry's anti-gay ad).

Given all of that, it's starting to sound like passing on Iowa might be a smart move for Jeb Bush. So let's fix that. We'll start by pointing out that when a candidate opts out of competing in Iowa at all, they opt out of a deluge of free publicity, courtesy of a firehose of media money.

If you cast your mind back to 2011, you might remember that John Ellis wrote a piece for Business Insider that dispensed some hard truths about why the early primary states mean so much in the overall nomination process. Ellis pointed out that most major media outlets budget for the election season in four stages: the "pre-primary" season, the primaries and caucuses themselves, the conventions, and the debates. Ellis went on to note:

What happened in the past and what will happen again in 2012 is that the media (broadly speaking) blow through their pre-primary budgets quickly, overspend on early caucus and primary coverage, and then cut back sharply to conserve funds for convention and general election coverage.

The net result is that the early state caucuses and primaries are disproportionately important to determining the eventual nominee and that anyone who does not finish first or second in the Iowa caucuses and/or the New Hampshire primary is probably not going to command media coverage thereafter.

Political science blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Bernstein doesn't necessarily subscribe to Ellis' "first or second in Iowa or New Hampshire or bust" theory, but he largely concurs on how the Iowa Caucuses position candidates in front of a massive publicity machine. Writing in 2013, Bernstein argued:

Skipping Iowa doesn't work. Most people don't pay attention to presidential politics until very late in the game. When they start paying attention -- when the non-obsessive section of the news media starts paying lots of attention -- is around the Iowa caucuses, and a candidate not playing there will, naturally, not receive the publicity that the other candidates receive. Then comes the caucuses, and another blast of publicity that the non-participant will miss. And the last bit is that the winners in Iowa will at the very least be taken more seriously, and perhaps get the kind of windfall positive publicity that Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Gary Hart in 1984 got. Note that Hart's came from a weak second place finish; the news media have to find some candidate to give the rest of the primaries and caucuses some drama.

To be quite honest, Bernstein is something of a one-man wrecking crew on the subject of skipping Iowa. So when I espied this exchange on Twitter Wednesday afternoon...

... I knew exactly what was coming next:

Bernstein isn't particularly hung up on whether a contender finishes win, place or show in Iowa, but he's heard the argument that the rightward tilt of Iowa's caucus-goers present a challenge for competitors like Bush, and has answered by pointing out that even if they can't win in Iowa, they can play defense:

Skipping Iowa for a candidate who could have finished second, third or fourth means that everyone who did show up moves up. Worse, let's say Jeb Bush and Chris Christie share a target vote; if Bush skips and Christie participates, Christie not only hops up a spot, he also wins votes Bush would have won. The candidates who do well in Iowa get favorable publicity going into New Hampshire; the ones who don't show up are just part of the crowd.

Beyond all that, it's kind of important for people who want to be taken seriously as competitors to get down to the business of seriously competing as quickly as possible. Back in 2003 -- at a time when Democratic candidates Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark were taking the "Let's Just Skip Iowa" rocketship to absolutely nowhere, the Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak took a dim view of the strategy, and Democratic strategist Tad Devine was along for the ride:

"The way the nominating process has always worked is that voters begin to take signals from the events which precede their own," said Tad Devine, a strategist for three of the last four Democratic presidential nominees and a supporter of John F. Kerry in the current race.

"In a large, multi-candidate field, voters are looking for cues -- who is the front-runner and who is a viable alternative?" Devine went on. "If you're none of the above because you haven't participated, it's very hard for voters to get a signal that voting for you would be meaningful."

Devine's guy won in Iowa, and went on to win the nomination, and I'm guessing that he was pretty happy to see Lieberman and Clark decide that they didn't want to send strong signals to voters.

It's true that Bush currently trails Scott Walker in HuffPost Pollster's early Iowa Caucus poll average. But during this "invisible primary" period, he's done quite well in terms of attracting donor support -- so much so that just weeks ago, he told his "Right To Rise" super PAC contributors that "the organization has raised more money in its first 100 days than any other Republican operation in modern history."

But to have a fundraiser wryly joking about how Bush seems to be following "the Giuliani strategy" (in which the candidate holds out in the hopes of making it to the Florida primary) -- as a source does in Coppins' piece -- is a bad sign. It means that more than a few Bush donors are likely wondering today, "What did I invest in? I thought Jeb Bush wanted to be a competitor."

Given his recent struggles to answer simple questions about the Iraq War and his generally passive demeanor of late, perhaps Bush is wondering if he is as well.

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