Saturday, July 15, 2023

[From FHQ Plus] Yes, Iowa still matters

The following is cross-posted from FHQ Plus, FHQ's subscription newsletter. Come check the rest out and consider a paid subscription to unlock the full site and support our work. 


Iowa Republicans have set a caucus date for 2024. That got some folks thinking about the caucuses place in the presidential nomination process:

“What if Iowa doesn't matter?”

That was a question Chris Cillizza recently posed. And FHQ gets the point. Cillizza is suggesting that either Trump will win the lead-off caucuses next January or will lose and do what he did in 2016, cry foul at the process before moving on to a more hospitable format -- a primary -- back east in the Granite state. 

And that point is well taken. It is a narrower variation on the 2024 is a repeat of 2016 line that has become standard in the discourse of the Republican presidential nomination race this time around. However, that does not mean that it is off base. It may be!

But where FHQ parts ways with Cillizza is on a broader distinction perhaps.

Of course Iowa matters. 

Of course Iowa will matter. Win or lose, things may play out with Trump in the lead role just as Cillizza suggests, but it does not mean that the caucuses will not matter. They will matter in the way that they always do. The caucuses will winnow the field.

But how will Iowa (and New Hampshire) winnow the field? That may be the more operative question heading into primary season next year. Do the early contests literally winnow the field, forcing candidates from the race or do they effectively winnow the field, significantly diminishing the chances of candidates outside the top tier (however that is defined at the time) to near-zero levels?

We may never get a good answer because often, at least in recent cycles, it has been a little bit of both. Viable, office-seeking candidates, like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker on the Democratic side in 2020, who do not want to be winnowed by Iowa or New Hampshire -- those who see the writing on the wall during the invisible primary -- will drop out before the calendar even flips over to the presidential election year. Others, call them the all the eggs in the Iowa or New Hampshire basket candidates, such as Chris Christie in 2016, are among those left to "force" out at that point. 

Often, however, candidates do not neatly fit into one or the other of those categories. While Harris and Booker bowed out in 2020, other viable candidates soldiered on through Iowa, New Hampshire and into or through the other early window states in the Democratic order leading up to Super Tuesday. And that is a story as much about field size as it is about money available to keep those campaigns afloat. 

Yet, it is also a story of zombie candidates, effectively winnowed but still in the race and gobbling up not only vote shares in subsequent primaries and caucuses but potentially (depending on the rules) delegate shares. And that is where these early contests matter. They shape or do not shape the field left to fight over votes and delegates on down the line. No, some to a lot of those candidates-turned-zombies after Iowa or New Hampshire may not even qualify for delegates, but their presence affects how and how many delegates the candidates who do qualify end up being allocated. 

So, no, Iowa may not matter in identifying the eventual Republican nominee in 2024 (not Cillizza's point) and it may not matter where Trump (and/or the winner) is concerned. But it and any other early contests, not to mention the invisible primary, will shape the field that moves forward and how. It will affect the way subsequent rounds of the delegate game are played. That is important. That matters.


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