A talk show last Sunday included a fairly lengthy interview with…Donald Trump, speaking from the Iowa State Fair. Trump had just given a speech in which he had asserted that passing immigration reform would be a “death wish” for the Republican Party and indicated that he might run for President in 2016. ABC’s Jonathan Karl prefaced the interview with the mildly snarky observation that the possibility of a Trump candidacy caused some to raise their eyebrows and others just to roll their eyes. Warming to the subject, Karl asked Trump what he would say to persons who would term his candidacy a joke. For his part,Trump made it clear that he was not at the State Fair just to sample its celebrated deep-fried butter: he, at least, takes his possible candidacy quite seriously, describing his qualification as being “smart” and assuring Karl that if he became a candidate, he would be prepared to spend any portion of his (self) estimated fortune of $ ten billion might that be needed in the effort.
Whatever measure of amusement or irritation observers might have derived from The Donald’s trumpeting, it served to remind us that, wherever we live and whatever the year, it is difficult to escape the shadow of Iowa and its caucuses. Trump is not, by any means, the first Republican wannabe to visit Iowa this summer, three years before the 2016 election and two and a half before the legendary caucuses. He has been preceded by such notable figures as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker. Only the more plausible of the potential candidates for 2016 have not yet made a trip to Iowa this year. Paul Ryan, however, has scheduled a high-profile visit in November, and in the meantime, Chris Christie is too busy running for re-election as Governor of New Jersey, Jeb Bush seems to be consciously deferring any action that would signal his intent to become a candidate, and Marco Rubio may be awaiting the cooling of hostility over his support for immigration reform. Nevertheless, it is certain that as soon as any of the latter gentlemen begin to think seriously of a run in 2016, trips to Iowa will quickly follow.
So why are Iowa and the Iowa caucuses such a magnet for politicians? And is their attraction a good thing or not such a good thing? The importance of the Iowa caucuses lies solely in the fact that they provide the first test of the presidential primary season. As such, the caucuses become the quadrennial darling of a media driven by a need to produce “news” 24/7 and thirsty for the start of the new campaign. New Hampshire, which has jealously (one might say obsessively) guarded its position as the holder of the first primary, has acquiesced in following the Iowa caucuses only because they are not a primary. In fact, the caucuses have rather little to do with the selection of delegates to the Republican National Convention.
In 2012, Iowa was allotted only 28 delegates (2.4% of the 1144 required for nomination) and even those 28 were not chosen by the caucuses, but by other methods, primarily later conventions throughout the state. Thus, although Rick Santorum edged Mitt Romney by an eyelash in the caucuses, Ron Paul ultimately ended up with 22 delegates, Romney 6 and Santorum none. That is not to say that the caucuses serve no purpose at all. Some argue that they help to “cull the field,” and they did indeed perform that function in 2012 with the merciful elimination of Michele Bachmann. Ms Bachmann had attracted attention earlier in the year by winning another Iowa event, the Ames poll at a party fundraiser, but she dropped out after a dismal sixth place showing in the caucuses. On the other hand, a fifth place finish for Rick Perry (despite having out-spent the field) prompted only a fleeting “reassessment” before he vowed to continue.
It is hard to make a case that the caucuses have had a positive effect in nominating and electing Republican candidates. The previous caucus winners who became the party’s nominee for President were Gerald Ford, Bob Dole and George W. Bush, but their Iowa victories made only a modest contribution to their respective nominations, and only Bush went on to prevail in the general election. (On the Democratic side, the most dramatic benefit was reaped by Jimmy Carter, who was instantly propelled from being a relatively unknown governor to a leading candidate. (As to whether that was a positive development, for either the country or the Democratic Party, opinions will differ.)
If the Iowa caucuses do not contribute much to the Republican Party, what harm do they do? For a start, they absorb a disproportionate amount of candidates’ time and money. After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee created a task force to undertake a “Growth and Opportunity Project.” The Project issued a Report on March 18, 2013 that made a broad range of recommendations intended to make the party more competitive. With respect to primaries, the Report observed that: “The current system is a long, winding, often random road that makes little sense. It stretches the primaries out too long, forces our candidates to run out of money, and because some states vote so late, voters in those states never seem to count.” That is a description with which it is difficult to disagree, and as a reform, the Report made the apparently sensible suggestion of moving to a “regional primary system.” Nevertheless, the Report also proposed, with a characteristic lack of courage, certain exemptions to the regional primaries:
“Recognizing the traditions of several states that have early nominating contests, the newly organized primaries would begin only after the ‘carve-out’ states have held their individual elections. It remains important to have an ‘on ramp’ of small states that hold unique primary days before the primary season turns into a multi-state process with many states voting on one day. The idea of a little-known candidate having a fair chance remains important.”
The text of the Report did not specify the “carve-out” states, but they were identified by the RNC as being Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. The premise for “carve-out” states seems dubious. Apart from the example of Jimmy Carter in 1976, none of the primaries or caucuses in those states has functioned in the past as an “on ramp” for little known candidates, and given the financial resources now required to compete even in smaller states, none is likely to.
The Report also expressed a preference for primaries over caucuses and conventions:
“We also recommend broadening the base of the Party and inviting as many voters as possible into the Republican Party by discouraging conventions and caucuses for the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention. Our party needs to grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so. The greater the number of people who vote in a Republican primary, the more likely they will turn out and vote again for the Republican candidate in the fall election.”
Involving a greater number of voters in the nomination process is obviously desirable, but primaries are also preferable for another reason perhaps even more important. Caucuses and conventions are dominated, even more than primaries, by party activists who, in the Republican Party, tend to be its most conservative members, often evangelical Christians. Thus, their inclination is to support candidates who are rigidly conservative—and correspondingly less able to attract moderates and independents in a general election. The impact of the latter on the 2012 Iowa caucuses was quite telling. As Pew Research reported:
“Among the 57% of Iowa caucus-goers who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, Santorum finished in first place with 32% support. Ron Paul garnered 18% of the evangelical vote, while Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry each received 14% of the evangelical vote.”
There are already ominous signs that a similar phenomenon may appear in 2016. A headline in an online conservative Christian newsletter recently reported, “Ted Cruz Steals Santorum’s Thunder Among Iowa Evangelicals.”
While the Iowa caucuses have not been an on-ramp for lesser known candidates, they may provide support for “spoiler” candidates who are quite well-known but unable to garner the backing of a majority of Republicans nationally, let alone compete effectively in a general election. In the end, they only make it more difficult for the Republican Party to come to a timely agreement on the strongest candidate for the general election. Rick Santorum was such a candidate in 2012 and Ted Cruz has the look of a more formidable distraction in 2016. Senator Cruz, it must be said, is clearly no friend of RINOs: his disdainful term for those who do not share his radical views is “squishes.” Indeed, his intolerance for moderate views of any sort is precisely the kind of arrogance that RINOcracy.com was formed to oppose. We must not stand by and let the Republican Party be Cruzified on the altar of ideological purity.
It may be difficult or impossible by 2016 to reform Iowa’s procedure or to diminish its impact, but no opportunity to do so should be missed. Failing that, RINOs and friends of RINOs across the country should be prepared to contribute to the candidate or candidates in the Iowa caucuses who can command broad support and lead our party and the country on a constructive path.