Does George Pataki really think he can win the nomination? Rand Paul? Rick Santorum? Whoever announced this morning? Yes. How can they possibly think this, you ask (unless you are one of their ardent supporters)? I mean, a first-term senator, a former printing executive, whatever, who, frankly, no one has ever heard of is going to get elected president? How are they going to raise the $300 million or however much it will take to win the nomination?
Back in 1974, there was a termed-out one-term Georgia governor with these two very smart 20-something aides (who also were sort of termed out if he was), and one of them, the late Hamilton Jordan, wrote one of those famous memos that become symbols in politics. The gist of it was: Iowa is a caucus state. You could meet every person who goes to a caucus. Do. If you win Iowa, it becomes a huge national story, and they put you on the covers of the magazines (a big deal in those days), and the money rolls in on your way to New Hampshire. And if you win New Hampshire — my goodness, the famous first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary — or even do better than expected, you’re all of a sudden the national frontrunner, and all you need is one Southern state tucked right up there, and you’ve got what you need to prove that you are the overwhelming choice of the nation.
Three states. Pretty good. Actually, it’s pretty much still the only strategy that works if you’re one of the people whose decision to run for president is something we hear about in the car radio but can’t quite remember by the time we get in the house.
The joke in Iowa — and it’s actually happened to me and everyone else — is that you bring your candidate to a small event at someone’s farm at some incredibly early hour of the morning, and at the end of his promising every form of agricultural subsidy you could reasonably request, you ask one of the guests whether he’s ready to support your candidate, and he looks at you like you’re absolutely crazy and says, “But I’ve only met him once.”
Now, you could argue that the ability to survive years of living-room grilling is a good test of presidential skills, although I’m not sure why, since it has absolutely nothing to do with winning general elections, much less governing.
But it has a great deal to do with how the presidential races get played out.
While it’s true that Jimmy Carter went on to win the presidency, Iowa caucus voters are rarely so accurate in their predictions. President Huckabee? Or was that President Santorum? They were the last two Iowa “winners.”
No, predicting presidents is hardly the purpose of Iowa, so much as propelling insurgents. I will never forget one Iowa caucus night, driving around and literally seeing what seemed to be every church bus in the state on the highways. And thus was the birth of the Christian Coalition. Who, after all, has buses other than schools (teachers are always much sought after by Democrats) and churches?
In the years since, Iowa’s Republican caucus has become the weeding-out ground for all the candidates whose names you can’t remember, especially on the right. Jeb Bush will survive Iowa; a lot of the other folks getting up early to hit the farms won’t. But the one or two who do the best, especially if they can follow up with a strong showing in New Hampshire, win the right to challenge Bush or whoever the mainstream establishment such as it is has resigned itself to. As for everybody else, enjoy the chicken fries.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.