Tilly: Don't sleep on Iowa

BY ZACH TILLY | AUGUST 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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In a political analysis published in Sunday’s New York Times, some members of Iowa’s Republican establishment expressed their worry that Iowa and its first-in-the-nation caucuses may be losing some clout in the GOP’s presidential nominating process.

Their concern is that Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers are too conservative, that the state is a battleground for unelectable loons and, as a result, an inhospitable environment for more moderate candidates who may ultimately choose not to campaign heavily (or at all) in Iowa.

Indeed, the GOP caucuses have proven electorally irrelevant of late. The last two winners of the Republican caucuses — Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — have been long-shot social conservatives with roughly the same odds of winning the presidency as a hot bag of mayonnaise.

For more moderate 2016ers such as Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, staying away from Iowa, where grass-roots conservative and libertarian movements are solidly entrenched, must be tempting. But staying away is a bad idea.

The logic of skipping Iowa makes sense on the surface. Under normal circumstances, Iowa can be a kingmaker. It’s a great place for a relatively unknown entity to build an organization and some brand recognition. It’s a place for candidates to prove that they can win and make a little money in the process. It’s a place to steal momentum.

By abstaining from this process, moderates would be effectively attempting to take all that power away, to make winning the Iowa Republican caucuses an unremarkable, unimportant feat.

But pulling out of Iowa could also have serious unforeseen consequences.

The nominating process is longer than ever — the last time around, it began in the summer of 2011 and continued for almost a year. From the Ames Straw Poll in August to the caucuses in January, the nominating process revolved around Iowa. In Iowa we met Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. We had joy of rediscovering Newt Gingrich, and we said goodbye to Tim Pawlenty.

For better or worse, Iowa was at the center of the race’s formative months. To stay out of Iowa in 2015 is to willfully remove oneself from the limelight until January.

In a wide-open nomination race, giving away months of crucial media attention is bad news, especially since the race’s best known hypothetical “moderates” — Christie and Rubio — are still unknown to about a quarter of the country, according to a July Pew poll.

Staying out of Iowa could mean much more than a little attention lost, however.

What’s overlooked in the nail-biting over the conservative dominance in Iowa’s GOP caucus is that Iowa’s electoral votes have been won (often narrowly) by Democrats in six of the last seven presidential elections.

The 2016 Republican nominees, whoever that may be, will certainly covet Iowa’s electoral votes. Conceding the Iowa caucuses would mean forgoing the politicking, networking, and organizing that could be the difference in November.

Consider that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney campaigned particularly hard in the Iowa caucuses and neither carried the state in the general election. Part of the problem for McCain and Romney in Iowa was that they lacked the deep grass-roots support fostered by such candidates as Santorum, Ron Paul, and Barack Obama, who campaigned long and hard in Iowa.

Passing up Iowa in 2016 to stay above the fray of silliness might sound enticing, but it could cost the Republicans the electoral votes of a crucial swing state.

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