DES MOINES, Iowa—This Saturday, Jeb Bush makes his first visit to Iowa as a possible presidential candidate to attend the Iowa Agriculture Summit. In past years an establishment favorite like Bush would approach the first caucus state gingerly, unsure whether to expend time and resources in a process that generally has favored more conservative candidates. But 2016 may be different. All the Republican candidates seem to be playing in Iowa. So in advance of his visit to the state this weekend, Bush told Iowa radio that if he were to run he would be “all in.” Usually, hedging candidates simply promise to return to the state.
For the last several presidential cycles, the Iowa caucuses have produced either a winner who was a favorite of social conservatives who then had trouble surviving outside the state, or one of the top candidates has not campaigned in the state and built his fortress in New Hampshire instead. It made the Iowa results an unreliable and quirky indicator for the strength of the candidates in the field. The results always had an asterisk next to them. That may not happen this election cycle, which makes the Iowa competition unlike anything we’ve seen from Republicans since 1988.
Everyone in Iowa wants the state to be competitive and taken seriously. A rousing slugfest would bring campaign money and attention. For party operatives, every time a first-tier candidate visits, it means they can raise money and build their local networks. So everyone in Iowa wants the rest of the country to see it as a valid test of the entire Republican field.
Iowa is also perhaps the greatest venue of expectation management in politics. The first four states in the Republican calendar—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—represent only about 6 percent of the delegates necessary to win the nomination. As a mathematical matter, the contests scheduled to take place in February are not that meaningful. But as a momentum- and buzz-generating production, they matter a great deal. A candidate who doesn’t do well in those four contests has a tough time making a plausible case that he’ll suddenly win everything once March rolls around.
But what does doing well mean? That’s where we wade into the murky and irritating world of expectations. Doing well means doing better than the press and your competitors thought you were going to do. In Iowa it doesn’t mean you have to win—the state has rarely done a good job predicting the ultimate winner—but you do need to outperform the expectations, which then helps you build support in other states.
In 1996, Lamar Alexander, a long-shot presidential candidate, was the story coming out of Iowa, even though he came in third. In 2000 he nearly lived in Iowa, and when he didn’t do very well in the nonbinding straw poll, it effectively ended his campaign. Tim Pawlenty dropped a lot of money into the state in 2012, had a bad straw poll, and that was it for the Minnesota governor. Mitt Romney spent lavishly in Iowa in 2008 and didn’t win. That was it for him, too. In 2012 he played it cool, making few visits to the state, keeping his official footprint small, and then swept in at the last minute to lose the state by only a handful of votes. He might have lost, but he did better than expected!
You can’t ascertain expectations by writing the formula up on the whiteboard, but the elusive bar you have to clear is created by conventional wisdom about the electorate in the state—is it dominated by social conservatives, broadened by moderates, or larger than usual because of libertarians or nonpolitical types attracted by Donald Trump?—and how much effort a candidate put into trying to win.
So the conversations about what candidates are doing in Iowa must be put through those two filters. Reports are that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is investing heavily in Iowa. He’s hired good staffers on the ground, and his supporters think he’s going to make a big commitment. That makes sense: He’s in sync with the conservative base in the state, he comes from a nearby Midwestern state, and he’s ahead in the polls. But it’s also in his competitors’ interest to elevate him to front-runner status. That increases the focus on him now (so that when he stumbles, people can say he’s not ready for prime time) and it inflates the idea of what doing well for him means.
In the past, candidates who have built strong footholds in New Hampshire have watered down the impact of the Iowa contest and described it as a meaningless prize handed out by a narrow part of the party. In 2000, George W. Bush won Iowa handily, but then lost New Hampshire to Sen. John McCain, who had been camped out in the state. In 1996, Bob Dole won Iowa but was upset by Pat Buchanan’s forces in New Hampshire. In 1992, Buchanan lost to George H.W. Bush in the Granite State, but the nearly 40 percent he was able to win turned the race upside-down for a time, making the Reagan-backed Bush look vulnerable.
This time, all the candidates are competing in Iowa and none has a special advantage in New Hampshire. The Republican National Committee has also put in place draconian measures to keep any other states from moving their contests into February. So not only is Iowa the first state, but it’s one of four chances a candidate has to make a name for himself. That means the state will, for the first time in seven presidential cycles, have a chance to act as a contest of equals with fewer asterisks.
The two candidates Iowa Republican strategists are particularly skeptical about are Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. One local Bush source downplayed the extent of the Bush operation (keep expectations low!), but others backing Bush promise that he will be making frequent visits and doing the time-consuming campaigning expected by voters. In conversations with key Iowans, Bush has left the impression that he will participate in the thorough manner to which they have become accustomed. In his interview with Radio Iowa, Bush said, “The lesson I learned that I took away from Iowa in my forays in there for my Dad and my brother is that you’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to really take the time to meet people and campaign there actively one-on-one and on a personal level.”
The benefit of frequent visits by Bush is that they will allow him to dispel notions that he’s just like his brother or father, which he has had success doing in small groups and the kind of close campaigning Iowa favors. Frequent visits will also allow him to show that he doesn’t have a problem with conservatives—particularly since he has disparaged the conservative-dominated nominating process that picks GOP nominees. “I’m going to run to the middle in the general election and you conservatives will just have to hold your nose” is how Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the Family Leader, characterizes the Bush message.
Christie visited the state multiple times last year (more than a dozen in the last five years) and has also hired local talent that suggests he will seriously participate. He has also boasted about his ability to do well in the state, making Iowa a proving ground for the idea that he is not too New Jersey to find support in the rest of the country.
These establishment candidates may feel compelled to participate because neither has a lock on New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada. McCain could skip Iowa in 2000 because he knew he could build support in New Hampshire (plus he didn’t have the money to compete in both places). Some of Christie’s supporters think he might be able to do the same, but his campaign is so damaged he may no longer have that luxury. In the latest CBS News poll, of all the candidates, Christie has the greatest number of Republicans who say they will never vote for him (43 percent) and is nearly tied for the smallest percentage of people who say they don’t know enough about him (29 percent). In other words, he has the least amount of room to grow his vote. Trying to improve that situation after a big Iowa loss will be nearly impossible.
Social conservatives have had an advantage in Iowa because caucus night requires a commitment. You sit for hours before voting. That means the most committed are the ones who participate. The most committed tend to be the most conservative. Every conservative who wants to destroy Bush or Christie would like Iowa to launch the first broadside in the hull of their sinking ship, so it’s in those conservatives’ interest to bait both into a big commitment on a tougher playing field.
Mainstream Iowa Republicans have been arguing that the state can showcase a broader representation of the party. Their case was helped by the victory of Sen. Joni Ernst, who gave the Republican response to the State of the Union as an avatar of the new GOP: female and uniting the Tea Party and pragmatic wings. During the last three years, the GOP’s forces of pragmatism expelled the forces of Sen. Rand Paul, who were running the state GOP—and running it into the ground, they believe. Gov. Terry Branstad, the soon-to-be longest-serving governor in American history, has worked to fashion the state Republican Party in his pragmatic image, which means it is in his interest to keep the state a competitive proving ground. Operatives who reshaped the state party have signed up for the Christie and Bush campaigns and are united in trying to make the state more mainstream.
Finally, Iowa is an important general election state, which means every candidate has an incentive to compete to build an organization for the future. The state was a lock for Obama in 2012 given that his rise started here in 2008, so there wasn’t a strong general election rationale for a GOP candidate to play here in 2012. But Iowa is one of the knife-edge states that could go either way in 2016. That is why Hillary Clinton is going to work hard in Iowa, even though she doesn’t have a serious caucus challenge.
It’s possible that one of the candidates in the current crop tries to finesse Iowa and spends more of his time building a campaign in one of the states to follow. But given the nature of the contest this time around, that’s a gamble that could be viewed as an admission of weakness that only leads to greater campaign woes. It all depends on what Iowa means for you.