The Importance of Iowa

The day is finally upon us.  As bitter cold sweeps through the Midwest, thousands of incredibly well mannered Iowans will bundle up and head to their local polling place to cast votes in our nation’s first relevant presidential poll.  For all of the endless discussion of “Iowa the kingmaker,” let’s remember that there are still 49 other states left to cast votes… even if only about half of them will actually matter.  However, that isn’t to say that Iowa isn’t important.  Iowa is first, making it incredibly important.

The importance of Iowa doesn’t lie in the winners nearly as much as it does in the losers.  Iowans can’t decide the next president for us, but they can certainly rule a few candidates out.  As day broke in the plains, candidates began spinning like Washington in his grave.  So, what’s the big deal?  Why all the fuss?  Why are we so terrified/excited to see a state that, while very pleasant, isn’t exactly a cross-section of the United States head into rooms for a process that no one seems to understand, only to exit a few hours later with their list of presidential BFFs?
We care because these people can make you or break you.

Even as recently as 2004, we saw the power of the Iowa Caucus firsthand.  Not only was Howard Dean leading in Iowa, he was leading everywhere.  The Democratic Party had written Dean in as the nominee, his eventual coronation a foregone conclusion.  Then, a last minute endorsement from popular Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack seemed to spur interest in John Kerry.  The voters took to the polls and by the eleven o’clock news Howard Dean had not only come in an astounding third (not even close), but had imploded his entire campaign.  The man that seemed destined for Washington was now an “also-ran,” and will forever be linked with a girlish yell.

In 2000 the nation seemed eager to accept John McCain as their next president.  George W. Bush seemed to be an interesting candidate, but really… George W. Bush?  This was John McCain we’re talking about, he’s an American hero!  McCain largely ignored the Iowa Caucus, allowing Bush to garner 41% of the vote, to McCain’s 5%.  To put that in perspective, John McCain ignored Iowa so consistently that he finished behind not only Bush, but Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer.  Despite a strong showing in New Hampshire, McCain was now fighting a publicity monster in the Bush organization and 8 years later he’s trying again.

In 1992, Iowa’s own beloved senator Tom Harkin threw his hat into the ring, making first place simply not a viable option for any other candidate.  However, a few Democrats made the decision to stomp the pavement in Des Moines despite impossible odds.  Harkin’s candidacy was likely to fizzle after Iowa, meaning that the number 2 and 3 candidates were to dominate the headlines… those candidates were Paul Tsongas and a previously unknown guy named Bill Clinton.  You may have heard of him.

1988 gave rise to an 8.8% 4th place finish for Jesse Jackson, causing the collective American jaw to drop and leading to an unforgettable campaign that actually saw Jackson become a very serious force in later states.  1980 saw George H.W. Bush knock off Ronald Reagan, setting up an unlikely paring of candidates in the general election.  1976 gave us a peanut farmer from Georgia stomping out competition from seasoned veterans with real political machines.

To sum up, it’s not about winning, it’s about being surprising.  Victory can be very important, but the victory is second to the news cycle.  Iowa doesn’t make presidents, it makes headlines, and in a 24 hour media market, nothing could be more important.  So, what are the potential stories in this year’s Iowastravaganza?  Actually, there are too many to mention, so I’ll spotlight my favorites.

Barack Obama.

Obama once proclaimed that if he won Iowa, he’d win the presidency.  At the time it seemed like a lofty goal, as Clinton had invested the GDP of a dozen third world nations in the state, and Edwards essentially never left after the 2004 contest.  However, determination and a positive message managed to push Obamania into the forefront of Iowa politics.  His candor and charm resonated with voters, and as polls shaped up leading closer and closer to the contest, Edwards’ and then Clinton’s leads began to shrink, eventually evaporating.

What does Obama need from Iowa?  He needs first place, or at bare minimum 2nd.  Finishing 2nd to Edwards is clearly the preferred scenario for Obama supporters, as 1st or 2nd lines their man up for the White House, or at least the VP spot.  A third place finish isn’t the end of the line for Obama, but it suddenly makes South Carolina the most important fight of his life.

Hillary Clinton.

Despite trying to play down the importance of the Iowa Caucus recently, Clinton is very well aware of what a 3rd place finish could mean for her candidacy.  Her lead is shrinking by the minute in New Hampshire, and has completely disappeared in South Carolina.  Should Edwards and Obama take first and second in either order, the story won’t be their rise to greatness… it will be her fall.  Every news outlet in the world will wake up tomorrow asking the question, “Is the Clinton Campaign over?”

It’s that kind of press that kills a candidate.  Once again, it’s not winning that matters, it’s not being the negative story.  Anything less than a close second is a disappointment for Clinton, and a distant third is an outright disaster.  With such an incredibly short time between Iowa and New Hampshire, the Clinton camp will be hard pressed to spin a third place finish into a non-story, and should it shape the opinion of New Hampshire voters enough to allow a competitor to take the state, she’s done.

Mike Huckabee.

For the former Governor of Arkansas, Iowa is the eggs, the basket, the chicken and the farmer.  While his stock has certainly risen in New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond, it’s Iowa that made him and Iowa that can break him.  Huckabee finds himself running fourth in New Hampshire, even behind a potential “also-ran” named Rudi Giuliani.  A victory in Iowa won’t do much to raise his name above the fray, as his dark horse status has now been shifted to “front runner” status.  However, a 2nd place finish will be presented as a “disappointment” and will solidify his 4th place status in the nation’s first primary… assuming he isn’t edged out by Ron Paul.

It’s unlikely that Huckabee can survive a 2nd place showing in Iowa, despite strong polling numbers in South Carolina.  Once the news cycle shifts from “surging Huckabee” to “surprising Romney,” trouble begins to brew.  Add into that brew the major news story that would be a strong 3rd place finish for John McCain and you have a recipe to leave South Carolinians saying, “Mike Huckabee?  Oh, I remember that guy!” a month from now.

Ron Paul.

There’s certainly no bigger wild card in American politics this year than Ron Paul… in fact, it’s been a very long time since we’ve had one quite like him.  His supporters are among the best educated, most passionate young people in politics today.  While I may disagree with them on issue after issue, I can’t help but respect the determination and organization they seem to posses.  When a little known congressman from Texas raises more money in the home stretch than any other candidate, all seemingly from individual small donations, you have to take notice.

His poll numbers are soaring in New Hampshire, his poll numbers are edging up in Iowa, and the caucus system could benefit him more than any other candidate.  When you’re in a room, begging your friends and neighbors to support your candidate, who’s going to get more attention, the guy trying to explain why we should care about Mitt Romney or the guy bouncing around the room with Ron Paul Fever?  For Paul, victory is most likely not an option.  However, a strong fourth place showing, or even a slight third place victory translates into the media question, “Is Ron Paul for real?”  With his support stronger and more organized in New Hampshire than anywhere in the nation, that question could very well drive poll numbers through the roof.  What happens to the race if Paul finishes 3rd in Iowa and 2nd in New Hampshire?  I have absolutely no idea, but I assure you we will be talking about it.

Of course, those stories aren’t the only interesting questions floating around tonight’s great political spectacle.  Can Giuliani survive two early setbacks in crucial states?  Will John Edwards doing everything but changing his place of residency to Iowa make the difference?  Will a 4th or 5th place finish finally cause Fred Thompson to drop out of the race?  Is Bill Richardson still running?

The beauty of political speculation is the seemingly endless list of things on which to speculate.  This year has provided a feast unlike any other, and as many questions are answered tonight, they will only give rise to even more.  Fortunately, we’re in the belly of the beast now.  We won’t have to speculate long, as one month from now we’ll have narrowed the field to just a few candidates and Super Tuesday will be within arm’s reach.  In the meantime, settle in this evening with a cold beer and some snacks.  The greatest political spectacle of the last few years will be unfolding in front of your very eyes.

Let’s just hope that someone does something stupid.

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