State Battles to Keep First-in-Nation Status for Caucuses

SIOUX CITY – Iowans are getting used to this fight.
Once again, the state finds itself battling to maintain its first-in-the-nation status with familiar foes Florida and Michigan. Late last week, Arizona joined the ranks of those jockeying for an earlier position in the 2012 presidential selection process when Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday announced plans to move the state’s primary to Jan. 31 – ahead of Iowa’s scheduled Feb. 6 caucus.
iowa_caucusDoug Gross, the 2002 Republican governor nominee and a Des Moines attorney with years of involvement in state party politics, said every four years Iowa’s spot at the front of the process is imperiled.
“We came within a hair’s breath of losing it last time,” Gross said.
What worries Iowa politicos this time around is the emergence of shooting-star candidates like Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, whose stock has skyrocketed since announcing her candidacy in June. Depending on which poll you’re reading, Bachmann is either in a dead heat or leading early frontrunner Mitt Romney in Iowa.
If Bachmann wins the caucuses then falters down the stretch, like 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, the concern is it will give caucus critics the ammunition they need to make the case for diminishing the Hawkeye State’s influence. Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty aptly summarized the argument in a June column:
“When the rest of the country is focusing on the economy, will Republicans in other states take their lead from the outcome of an eccentric process that has been dominated by social conservatives?” Tumulty wrote. “…How relevant are the preferences of 200,000 or so caucus-goers in a rural state that is overwhelmingly white and significantly older than average?”
Morningside College political science professor Patrick McKinlay said arguments like Tumulty’s aren’t necessarily accurate. Iowa’s success at picking presidents is mixed, but the state doesn’t always swing and miss.
“Somebody has to be first, and they’re not always going to be correct in predicting the winner,” said McKinlay, noting that Democrat Barack Obama won the January 2008 caucus, the party nomination and the presidency.
“Given the attention that it gives our state and the importance, and frankly, the power it gives our state, it is not surprising that others are envious of it. So, it is the kind of thing you always going have to guard and protect and justify, and most importantly, do a good job of it. Iowans take it very seriously, because we are performing, in effect, the first job interview for the most important job in our country. It is important that we be well-prepared and do a good job of that. If we don’t, then we deserve to lose it.”
The key thing, Gross said, is that one of the top three finishers in Iowa goes on to win the Republican presidential nomination. Gross said Iowa’s role is not necessarily to pick the nominee, but to function as an early winnowing state.
“New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, some of those states, are where it is really won or lost,” Gross said. “We winnow the field. If the eventual winner is not one of the top three (from Iowa), we are for a world of hurt, in terms of maintaining the caucuses.”
In 2008, the Republican caucuses were won by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, while the eventual nominee, John McCain, took third place. Candidates who won the caucuses then faltered elsewhere as the presidential selection system played out include Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Dick Gephart in 1988.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Iowa has often played a significant role in determining who ultimately becomes president.
“I’m reminded that Iowa made two previous presidents, Obama and (Jimmy) Carter. Maybe you can give Iowa credit for a lot of other people becoming president, but those two would not have been president if they had not won Iowa, for sure,” Grassley said.
However, the senator said it isn’t crucial for the Iowa winner to nab the GOP nomination or win the presidency.
“We’ve faced (that) situation a lot since the caucuses started in 1972. I would not think it would diminish the importance of Iowa for 2016,” Grassley said.
Ray Hoffmann, a Sioux City businessman and former Iowa Republican Party chairman, said it is not imperative for the Iowa caucus winner to take the nomination in order for Iowa to hold an early caucus spot in 2016, but it would be “very, very helpful.”
“It is not a total given, but it definitely helps,” Hoffmann said. “If the candidate who comes out first or second out of the state Iowa is going to be the president of the United States, well, naturally there is going to be a little pull to it is going to be help to keep you there.”
Hoffmann said states wanting to wrest an early-state position placement away from Iowa fail to realize there is not just stature to be gained. It takes a lot of hard work to pull off an early primary.
“There is so much to it,” Hoffmann said. “It is absolutely, totally overwhelming how good we are in this state. So the newcomer comes along, he might be very, very surprised, and totally fall on their face, because they really don’t know how much work you have to do to get it done. It is not a free ride.”
Gross said having candidates campaign in Iowa in a personal way, meeting with people in town hall meetings and cafes, is a benefit in vetting candidates. He said that’s preferable to “tarmac” campaigning in other states, where candidates fly in, have short stops, issue press releases and then flood the airwaves with commercials.
“It is important to the country, because the caucuses are a place where, if you don’t have a lot of money and you don’t have a lot of star power, you can do the work, and people can get to know you and ask you questions that otherwise nobody would ever ask you, and really, truly get tested,” Gross said.
Bret Hayworth is a reporter for the Sioux City Journal, a Lee Enterprizes newspaper.

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