Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Don't Bet on the Iowa Caucuses Going Anywhere in 2016

No, FHQ wouldn't even bet on it if Ron Paul won the caucuses on January 3.

Now, I won't go as far as to say that it won't happen, but the odds are against Iowa's caucuses being removed from its position at the front of the calendar. And in the end that will have very little to do with Iowans or campaign surrogates there saying the caucus process was "hijacked". Assuming Paul does win the caucuses and then fails to capture the Republican nomination, that really is no different than Iowa caucusgoers choosing wrong in the past in nomination races in both parties. As FHQ has said previously, Iowa's role isn't to predict the nominee, but rather to winnow the field. Iowa caucusgoers don't necessarily anoint the frontrunner, they usually pare the field down to either that candidate (if the invisible primary has been at all conclusive) or the frontrunner and another couple of candidates (if the invisible primary has been inconclusive). Iowa's success rate at picking the nominee isn't/wouldn't necessarily be any better or worse than any other state in that position.

But I don't want to defend Iowa's position on the calendar again.

...not that I am.

FHQ is just mindful of the reality of the process that produces a presidential primary calendar every four years. The decision of whether to keep Iowa and/or New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina up front is up to the national parties. If the parties want them there, then there those contests will be. If not, the delegate selection rules will be crafted in a way as to (attempt) to prevent that. And sure, that brings up a perfectly valid point: Why couldn't Iowa Republicans and Democrats just pull a Florida and ignore the national party rules if those rules didn't protect Iowa's spot at the head of the queue?

They could. But the problem is -- and Romney is demonstrating this to some extent this cycle -- that candidates can keep Iowa at arms length if they feel they can win the nomination without Iowa. No, FHQ doesn't mean skipping. No candidate would ever skip the first state, but they could choose to limit their time there, biding their time until the right point. That, however, takes a certain type of candidate; a frontrunner or a self-/well-financed challenger. Iowa Republicans are really worried about that -- those internal factors like candidate visits/spending -- instead of the RNC changing the rules and reshuffling the order at the beginning of the process -- an external factor.

Let's look at those externals first and then revisit the other end of the Iowa equation. First of all, if a Republican wins the White House next year -- regardless of whether the Iowa caucuses correctly predict the nominee -- then Iowa will not be an issue in 2016. It may be, but it isn't likely. Why? Parties in the White House rarely tinker with their rules; especially if the objective is to renominate/reelect the president (see Klinkner, 1994). If there is one thing the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee said last year, it was that their main objective -- the party's really -- was to reelect President Obama. They were not going to discuss anything -- and certainly not a contentious "Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn't be first" debate -- that was going to rock the boat. Buttressing that issue, there is no evidence that the Democratic Party would push Iowa from its lofty perch. If anything gives a state party an argument for being in a particular position on the calendar (early, in other words), it is the other party in the state holding down an early position. And in Iowa's case, there is a tradition of the two parties holding caucuses on the same date.

It is slightly more likely that Iowa would be in danger if Obama is reelected. The Republican Party would potentially be willing to reexamine just about anything within their 2016 nomination process -- Iowa's position included -- if they lost in 2012. And the Democratic Party would be more willing to go along if there is some consensus -- intra-party and inter-party -- behind moving Iowa from the top or reforming the system in some small measure. [BIG ifs.]

No, I think what is most probable -- even if Ron Paul wins on January 3 -- is that Iowa is simply left alone. Neither party was particularly interested in opening up that Iowa/NewHampshire debate in the last round of delegate selection rule tweaking and it isn't clear that they would want to in the future. It's complicated as I think much of the writing on FHQ will attest. This whole thing -- the Iowa conundrum -- has more to do with the dynamics of this race and within the Republican Party right now. If there was a clear frontrunner right now and a win in Iowa  was viewed as the first win in a string of fairly sure victories (think George W. Bush in 2000), then said frontrunner will be there and so will the other candidates. However, if you have no clear frontrunner and instead someone who is kind of sort of ahead in the polls (or at least consistent in them) and overspent and got burned in Iowa four years prior, then you have a recipe for an indecisive Iowa result. It really is as simple as that. The dynamics of the last two Republican races have hurt Iowa -- as it would have a great many other states that could have been at the front -- if the measure is defined as Iowa choosing the eventual nominee. But that isn't Iowa's role in this process and that is part of the reason they aren't likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

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