Political Animal


December 20, 2011 10:45 AM Pushing the Iowa caucuses into irrelevance?

By Steve Benen

Can Ron Paul win the Republican presidential nomination? No. Can he win the Iowa caucuses? Sure.

The larger question, then, isn’t what the party intends to do about Paul’s candidacy, which will wither as the nominating process unfolds, but rather, what the party intends to do about the Iowa caucuses.

Conservatives and Republican elites in the state are divided over who to support for the GOP nomination, but they almost uniformly express concern over the prospect that Ron Paul and his army of activist supporters may capture the state’s 2012 nominating contest — an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. […]

Paul poses an existential threat to the state’s cherished kick-off status, say these Republicans, because he has little chance to win the GOP nomination and would offer the best evidence yet that the caucuses reward candidates who are unrepresentative of the broader party.

“It would make the caucuses mostly irrelevant if not entirely irrelevant,” said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa Republican who helped Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43 here.

This is an entirely legitimate concern. Iowa, for reasons I’ve never been fully comfortable with, believes it is blessed by God to have first-in-the-nation status, and fiercely treasures this role. Candidates, or even possible candidates, have been reluctant to even suggest changes to the existing structure.

But a Paul victory would set a precedent that could change how Republicans perceive the caucuses themselves. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to a de jure change, but rather a de facto change — GOP presidential contenders would simply conclude, “Let’s focus our attention on New Hampshire on South Carolina, because those Iowans appear to be nuts.”

A party county chair in Iowa told Politico, “My biggest fear is that the Republican Party nationally and a lot of states that want to be number one [in the nominating process] will simply point to his winning and say, ‘Iowa’s irrelevant.’”

And that seems pretty likely.

What’s more, if Paul wins in Iowa two weeks from today, it arguably raises his visibility and bolsters his campaign in such a way that would encourage him to run as an independent after one of his rivals wins the Republican nomination. Paul has already suggested he may run against the GOP nominee in the general election, and Iowa’s Republican caucuses may very well, ironically, boost a candidate who won’t even stick with his party.

To be sure, this is speculative, and arguably premature. With 14 days to go, the political winds in Iowa are blowing in a variety of directions and no one can say with confidence exactly who’ll win in Iowa when the dust settles. Still, it’s a dynamic worth watching, especially as the party establishment starts to panic.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Tigershark on December 20, 2011 10:55 AM:

    Consign the Iowa caucuses into irrelevance? That is a feature, not a bug!

    It would be long overdue!

  • zandru on December 20, 2011 10:56 AM:

    "Would make Iowa irrelevant"

    Go, Ron Paul! I urge anyone not living in Iowa to send Representative Paul a contribution.

  • just bill on December 20, 2011 10:58 AM:

    "an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. []"

    and i couldn't think of a better outcome. next up for irrelevancy - new hampster.

  • Montana on December 20, 2011 10:59 AM:

    They could always make it much, much more difficult to vote as the Republicans are doing elsewhere in the country.

    I'm no fan of Paul's paddle-your-own-canoe approach to government, but heaven forbid that democracy might actually work in Iowa or elsewhere.

  • just bill on December 20, 2011 10:59 AM:

    "an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. []"

    and i couldn't think of a better outcome. next up for irrelevancy - new hampster.

  • c u n d gulag on December 20, 2011 11:01 AM:

    Iowa is very important!

    Why wouldn't a country want a state with less people than a NY City borough, a large chunk of whose population is rock-head solid Bircherite Conservative, to be the first proving ground for presidential candidates?

    Especially when one of the political parties running candidates there would today consider Barry Goldwater to be a card-carrying Communist 5th Columnist and Godless Liberal heathen, and would like to see the country return to its roots - in 17th Century Puritanism?

    What harm could possibly come from that?

  • zeitgeist on December 20, 2011 11:07 AM:

    i'll play Devil's Advocate on this one. I'm not sure I get either the gnashing of teeth over Paul winning the caucuses or Steve's certainty that he can't win the nomination.

    let me start with the caucuses. it would hurt the credibility of the caucuses any more if Paul won than if Bachmann or Cain, each of whom topped the polls in Iowa in the past 6 months? and why would it not hurt the credibility if Gingrich won -- because a few idiots in the media who like his quotability have deemed a lying, philandering, anti-Constitutionalist who was dethroned by his own party for ethics violations to be "mainstream"?

    I suspect Paul is actually more in tune with New Hampshire's libertarian bent than, say, Santorum, yet presumably no one would say Santorum winning Iowa would end the caucuses.

    I find the whole argument odd, especially coming from my fellow Iowans. The best argument for Iowa's role is that it is an engaged, educated state with relatively small size and inexpensive media markets -- perfect, in other words, for an underdog to be able to break out. It became a big deal when it did precisely that for Carter. If that is Iowa's calling card, how is it a bad thing for that to happen again? (And Paul should get credit for taking a relatively non-theocratic message into a state Republican Party that has become a bunch of warmongering theocrats and doing well nonetheless.)

    Which leads to the second issue. If Paul wins Iowa and that lends him more credibility, and New Hampshirites lean libertarian rather than theocratic and coalesce around him as the anti-Mitt, lets say Paul runs a close second. With a 1st and a 2nd, money rolls in. He tanks in S. Carolina, but does ok in Florida. . . at that point he isn't in too bad of shape. (Note that I still think Romney wins unless he really shoots himself in the foot, but that is true no matter who wins Iowa.)

    Paul is nutty, but in many ways less so than the other candidates. I think it is hilarious how scared he has the more established leaders in the various wings of the Republican party.

    By the way, the Iowa caucuses will be diminished no matter who wins. Citizens United, big money and new media are creating a de facto national primary anyway. No one has spent as much time here as candidates used to except Bachmann and Santorum -- who are mired at the bottom of the list showing no reward for months of hanging out in farmers co-ops having coffee with locals.

  • meander on December 20, 2011 11:08 AM:

    Beyond the anti-democratic nature of caucuses (i.e., how many people have several hours to spend in these meetings), consigning Iowa to irrelevancy would be a great boon for the environment (perhaps only until the another state becomes the big early prize). Why? Ethanol from corn. Every candidate must pledge eternal support for that boondoggle known as corn ethanol, a misguided program that helps create the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, leads to topsoil loss, pollutes smaller water ways, and has many other negative impacts.

  • Kiweagle on December 20, 2011 11:09 AM:

    I'm confused. Isn't the track record for Iowa's prediction of the GOP presidential candidates already utterly atrocious?

    Why Benen continues his vain attempts to apply logic to the actions of the Republican Party I'll never know.

  • Trollop on December 20, 2011 11:09 AM:

    Ron Paul Money Bomb! Woo .. Hoo...
    Next up, Iowa.. Also, more liberally "activist" than California!

  • MBunge on December 20, 2011 11:11 AM:

    �Let�s focus our attention on New Hampshire on South Carolina, because those Iowans appear to be nuts.�

    But New Hampshirites, who voted for Pat Buchanan, and South Carolinians, who still fly the Confederate flag, aren't?


  • sick-n-effn-tired. on December 20, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Why anyone would think these backwater mugwumps represent the demographics of this country is beyond me . Remember last years big winner Mike Huckabee? . Very predictive.
    I went here for stats :
    population just over 3 mil and still 40% rural.
    Remember these are caucuses , so those with the most money for buses and perks for the caucus goers are more likely to win.
    Its the American effin way baby.
    That is how Michelle won the straw poll . Bought all the tickets and gave them away along with copious quantities of free food.

  • Perspecticus on December 20, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Nobody except Iowans care one cornstalk that Iowa has the first in the nation caucuses. Nobody.

  • zeitgeist on December 20, 2011 11:16 AM:

    um, sick-and-effn you don't have the first clue what you are talking about.

    you cant bus people into the caucuses anymore than you could a general election. they are held at the same precint level as voting for the general, you have to be registered in that precinct just like in the general.

    it isn't a straw poll. apparently we would be better replacing Iowa voters with people in other states who are too freaking ignorant to know the difference or to do the slightest bit of homework before they spout off?

  • jrosen on December 20, 2011 11:24 AM:

    For me the only positive in this whole sorry spectacle is in watching the high muckymucks of the GOP panic. I'm almost ready to send Paul money in NH, just to stir the pot (sweet shades of Rush Limbaugh!).

    But my resources, as a retiree are limited, and I just sent my second donation to Rod Zerban in Wisconsin (I live in NJ). He is running against that horses a$$hole Paul Ryan, so consider this a plug for him (Zerban). I hope some of you in this threaded community will do the same.

    The US as a viable society is circling the drain, but I would hope that we will not go down the tube(literally) without a fight.

  • kevo on December 20, 2011 11:32 AM:

    Ron Paul scares the Republican establishment because he is the real deal - a conservative who advocates small govenment because he believes no extraneous services should be provided by government in a free and liberty-minded society. Low taxes and minimal government intrusion upon the lives of individual citizens is his mantra.

    For years, the Republican establishment has talked Paul's beliefs, but actual elected Republican policy-makers have worked for vast governmental interference in the lives of individuals it deems unworthy of individual freedom!

    Just look at the level of denial the Republican establishment has maintained over the years, and it is easy to see their discomfort when Paul calls them out:

    Intervining in woman's reproductive medical care;

    Tax subsidies to coporate entities who don't need it;

    Resisting legal status of victimless crimes;

    Bailing out the financial sector;

    Maintaining an over-sized military ready to intervine anywhere in the world;

    and, Allowing DC lobbyists inside advantages!

    All these reflect big intrusive govenment no true conservative could sanction. And, when Paul reminds his party elders of this, he is ostrasized as an embarrassment. The real embarrassment should be shouldered by voters who have fallen for the canards of the Republican party for the past 40 years!

    Ron Paul attracts conservative thinkers as a moth is drawn to light, and his organization is effective, so why would other conservatives in the room want him out?

    Because they are so busy swimming da nile, they can't remember it's the longest river in the world and they are about to drown in 2012 because they're all wet! -Kevo

  • howard on December 20, 2011 12:00 PM:

    just for the record, it was jimmy carter (and his campaign manager, gary hart), who made iowa important.

    until then, new hampshire cherished its god-given status as number one in the nation.

    which is to say, tempus fugit: iowa has only been important for 35 years, and that important has been somewhat up-and-down (huckabee!).

  • demtom on December 20, 2011 12:15 PM:

    Howard, you're mostly right -- Carter's "win" in IA (actually second place behind "Uncommitted", but first among candidates) did more or less create the IA caucus phenomenon, because Carter parlayed the publicity into a NH win shortly after.

    But...Gary Hart wasn't his campaign mgr.; Hamilton Jordan was. Gary Hart was George McGovern's campaign mgr. four years earlier. By '76, Hart was in the Senate.

  • g on December 20, 2011 12:22 PM:

    When were the Iowa caucuses relevant?

    I guess you'd have to ask President Huckabee.

  • low-tech cyclist on December 20, 2011 12:34 PM:

    The Iowa caucuses ARE relevant, whether or not Ron Paul wins them. You just have to understand how.

    Basically, what Iowa and NH do in tandem is to narrow the field for either major party's nomination down to at most two candidates. You get to be one of those two by winning one of those states.

    If Ron Paul wins Iowa, then Romney wins the GOP nomination: Romney will win NH, and Ron Paul can't win the nomination.

    Iowa will have demonstrated that, despite the party's reservations about Romney, they don't have any better alternative. And there the matter ends.

  • Hedda Peraz on December 20, 2011 12:44 PM:

    Iowa's Relevance?
    In 2016 the Democrat (sic) party should hold its primary on Martha's Vineyard.

  • Farmboy on December 20, 2011 12:57 PM:

    In contests where only the incumbent is running, the GOP Iowa caucus does a great job of predicting the eventual nominee.

    In contests with multiple candidates and no incumbent like this season, the GOP Iowa caucus has a terrible record of picking the eventual nominee.

    It is the "retail" campaigning in a middle of the road state like Iowa that has value, not picking the winner or losers of a midwinter poll. By giving the candidates each their moments under the media glare everyone benefits - except the candidates who stumble and fall under extended scrutiny.

  • KarenJG on December 20, 2011 2:49 PM:

    From your headline to God's ear... I sure hope so.

    And Farmboy, I don't dispute that retail campaigning is valuable, I just disagree that Iowans & New Hampshirites have a right to be the only ones to get it. Some of the rest of us would like to see the candidates up close & personal, too.

    But it's really more than that. As meander alluded to, it's the issues that get addressed - and more importantly to other states - don't get addressed with the current Iowa/New Hampshire set up. With more than half the country in a high-density "city" type environment, we really need urban issues addressed more than they are - or ever will be, in the current set up.

  • Sean Scallon on December 20, 2011 3:45 PM:

    So if Ron Paul wins the White House is the Presidency irrelevant? I mean we can play these games all day if you want.

    If Iowa was pretty damn relevant in making Barak Obama President of the United States (you mean a non-white person President? Impossible!) I don't see why that changes in four years to where the caucuses become irrelevant just because you don't happen to like the person who wins them or they're a different party. It doesn't work that way.

    Iowa is relevant because it goes first, period. If Montana was first on the docket with its caucuses, instead of going in June as it usually does, every network TV station, every reporter and political junkie would be in Billings right now. We would have debates from Bozeman and Helena. That's why Iowa insists upon going ahead of everyone else. New Hampshire is the same thing, it's the first primary. It doesn't matter the make up of the population or the size of the state or who votes in it or whatever. It's about placement and the parties have agreed since 1972 to let both states kick-off the process for better or worse.

    Now candidates may agree not to contest the caucuses, but that doesn't mean there won't be those who will, because they're cheap to compete in (as compared to say starting in Florida and how did that work for Rudy Guliani?)and because a win is win is a win. Period. This pathetic attempt to play Humpty-Dumpty and changing the meaning of things in the middle of game is pathetic. I would expect this of the establishment because that's what they do to preserve their power. I would expect better of the publication which has tried to make it point of pride they don't follow the establishment line (well, at least as far as Obama Administration is concerned but that's a topic for another day).

    Either it means something or it doesn't now. Today. Not after the vote is counted. And if doesn't mean anything, get the hell out of Iowa right now and don't stay up late Jan. 3 waiting for the results. One or the other.

  • MNRD on December 20, 2011 4:07 PM:

    Steve, I've rarely disagreed with you as strongly as I disagree with you on this analysis. You are simply repeating the neo-conservative talking points regarding a Ron Paul victory in Iowa. What if instead, a Ron Paul victory in Iowa represented a thorough repudiation of the leftover neo-conservatism of most of Paul's rivals for the nomination? What if a surprisingly strong showing by Paul in the primaries wound up being the death knell for the bombastic saber-rattling of neo-conservatism? In that case, a Paul victory in Iowa would represent a foreshadowing of a decisive turn amongst the Republican electorate against neo-conservatism. In that case, Iowa would actually reflect a major national shift in the Republican electorate.

  • Farmboy on December 20, 2011 4:50 PM:

    KarenJG, you can have them. With my blessings. But you have to take the media as well - it's a package deal. ;-)

    However, unless you're from a low population state like Iowa or NH, you'll never see the candidates. You need the county fairs, and the storefronts, and people's living rooms. More importantly, you need open access to those places. Can you picture a politician just standing in Times Square shaking the hands of passersby like he or she was in Algona IA? And not getting mugged? Or the PD not pepper spraying somebody?

    Still, I'd like them out of here next go round. They can be somebody else's nuisance.

  • KarenJG on December 20, 2011 5:03 PM:

    Gee, thanks Farmboy! 'preciate it. Our economy could certainly use the boost from the campaign staff and media people spending money. I'd be happy to put up with the frenzy for that alone. But... as I said, more important to me is the issues that get addressed. I live near Detroit, and I'd LOVE to see the candidates have to address urban issues every time somebody sticks a microphone in their face.

  • Darren on December 21, 2011 9:39 PM:

    The Republican establishment is scared to death! I believe that all of mainstream media are told to minimalize Dr. Paul anyway they can because if he got the nomination and became Prez- what's one of the 1st dept. that will be abolished? The Federal Reserve! The elites would lose more $$$ than you or I would ever hope to see in our lifetime so you have a jackass like Steve who is sending out the same old tired message that Dr. Paul isn't electable. Come on Steve, be more original than that!