Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Caucuses' Greatest Hits: 2015 Edition

With the once mighty Ames Boone Straw Poll struggling to gain traction, and the relatively light activity on the Democratic side*, long time caucus lovers are suffering from some existential angst: will the caucuses survive?

Well, for one thing, * ,  Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders are all in the state this weekend, and they, plus Jim Webb, will headline a July 17 party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids, the first cattle call event on the Democratic side and the first confirmed non-invite only Clinton event. (Where's Chafee?) So stuff is happening. (I'll be at one of O'Malley's stops, Thursday night at 7 at the Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City. Insert Irishman/pub joke here.)

And the Register's Jason Noble attacks the existential angst directly with a piece headlined No, Iowa isn’t over. "A spin through the last four decades of Iowa political history underscores how the importance of the caucuses has waxed and waned repeatedly without fundamentally threatening their primacy on the calendar."

I've taken that spin through four decades, in a post I first wrote back in 2006 and have updated periodically. I've looked at and ranked all the caucus cycles back to 1976.  As for history and the caucuses themselves, a mixed bag.  Irrelevant nearly half the time, critical a little less often. With the latest round of existential angst, it feels like a good time for an update.

Not Worth The Airfare To Waterloo

17. 1984 and 2004 Republican. The Republican tradition is to hold no presidential vote at all in incumbent re-elect years.

16. 1996 Democratic. The word went down from Des Moines to the Democratic county chairs: “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” Self-starters in a couple lefty college precincts elected a very small handful of Nader and Uncommitted protest delegates, but those results got swept under the rug. Clinton came out and campaigned the final weekend, largely to step on the GOP story (Actually Being President trumps winning the caucus), but it was in basketball arenas, not chat n’ chews.

15. 2012 Democratic.  As close to an unopposed caucus as possible short of “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” The state party went to bat for actually having an alignment, when Chicago wanted to focus on a video conference with Obama. But without a live candidate, the dissenters were split between Uncommitted Democrat and crossing over for Ron Paul. In the end the Uncommitteds made a lot of noise out of proportion to their 1.5% of the delegates. (The party tried to sell attendance figures as "results.") This was right at the height of Occupy, a flawed movement whose strategy failed to take into account the key environmental issue of seasonal hemispheric climate change - what we locals call "winter."

14. 1992 Republican. Ranked up a little because, in a strategic win for George HW, the inside the Des Moines Beltway crowd stuck with the tradition of not having a vote in an incumbent president year, while the Pat Buchanan Brigade was looking like a serious threat to win New Hampshire.

Ultimately Irrelevant

13. 1992 Democratic. Hometown boy Tom Harkin runs and wins big, though not as big as it looked because of some skilled realignment work at viability time. That 76% Harkin delegate count included a lot of stealth supporters of other candidates.

Paul Tsongas was already on the ground in Iowa when Harkin announced, but he quickly bailed. There were a couple feints from Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown but nothing serious. In the end, Iowa kept first place after `92 only because Harkin jumped on the winner’s bandwagon while the other rivals couldn’t hide their obvious contempt for Clinton. (Jerry Brown probably wrote himself in that November.)

The long term importance of 1992 may be that Hillary Clinton didn’t have to shake hands and eat hotdish in towns like Courthouse Center and East Pole Bean.  Comic relief: An Iowa City dorm precinct elected a Jimmy Carter delegate.

12. 2000 Both. On the Democratic side Al Gore beat Bill Bradley in what was merely the first moment in the overall national dynamic; Dollar Bill made his stand on friendlier turf in New Hampshire and fell just short there.

On the Republican side it was like one of those boycott-era Olympics: W won but the toughest competitor, McCain, was a no-show. The truly significant GOP event was the straw poll that winnowed out more candidates (E. Dole, Quayle, and Buchanan bolting to Reform) than the actual caucus (Orrin Hatch, as if that wasn’t obvious).  Comic relief: People who took Gary Bauer seriously, Alan Keyes in Michael Moore’s mosh pit.

Secondary event in nomination contest

11. 1980 Democratic. The incumbent won the first test of Kennedy-Carter, but that battle of giants was played out on a national, even global, stage and Iowa was a bit player.

10. 2008 Republican. Important tactically to the dynamic of the contest, but not central to the result.

Mitt Romney was looking like the guy to beat in December 2007. Which Mike Huckabee did in January 2008, after first beating Sam Brownback at the straw poll to win the mantle of THE religious conservative candidate. Had Iowa Republicans gotten behind the Mitt, they may have headed off the chaos that was the GOP field in January. Instead, we proved that there was no there there for Fred Thompson, and that the Ron Paul Яэvoutionaries were noisy in disproportion to their actual numbers (but see 2012 below). But really, we just stirred the pot, and the decisive event was in Florida between two men with Screw Iowa Lite strategies, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

Downmodded a notch below 1996, because that year the Iowa winner actually won the nomination. May move up in a few years if Huckabee goes anywhere in 2012 or maybe 2016.

9. 1996 Republican. What might have been: Pat Buchanan was within 3% of Bob Dole, but the social conservatives in Cedar Rapids backed Alan Keyes instead; Keyes thus won the second biggest county. One minister at one mega-church makes a different choice, and we’d have had a major upset.

Some all too obvious field winnowing (Dick Lugar???) happens. Phil Gramm gets out too, but his real stumble was in Louisiana’s jump-the-starting-gun contest a week earlier. 

Comic relief: Easily the funniest caucus! Dole, genuinely witty in his non-Satan mode, Steve Forbes the android, Alan Keyes… but they all pale next to Morrie Taylor, the tire magnate who literally tried to buy a win one vote at a time. Failed miserably but looked like he had more fun than the rest put together.

8. 1988 Democratic. There's a story, long told by Paul Simon loyalists, that a county chair sat on his Simon-friendly results until the Register had printed its GEPHARDT WINS headline, and they're still mad about it even though the chair in question is long dead. Real-time rules on reporting results have been enacted since then, but this one proved the winner-take-all-news theory.

In `88 Al Gore was the first candidate to use the Screw Iowa strategy.  It's never worked (save for the Tom Harkin year), but nevertheless Gore wound up outlasting the two Iowa leaders. But the nomination contest came down to Dukakis vs. Jackson, neither of whose fortunes were affected by Iowa.  Comic relief: Gary Hart’s last minute return to the race, campaigning with his wife.

7. 2012 Republican.  The real importance of the 2012 Republican caucuses was not its relatively small role in designating the nominee. That was always going to come down to Mitt vs. Not Mitt.  Because of the dead heat, dual winner result, and because Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich on life support far too long, Rick Santorum never really got the bump from the win.

No, the real importance was what happened after the presidential vote. The Romney and Santorum people both said "yay, we won," went home, and both in turn were right. The Ron Paul people stuck around, elected themselves as delegates and committee people, and took over the state party structure.

The consequences had a huge ripple effect through state, and even national, internal Republican politics for the next two years, until Terry Branstad, Jeff Kaufmann and the rest of the grownups took party control back in 2014 (the most important OFF-year caucus). And we still haven't seen the final reckoning for the 2012 national convention delegation voting en masse for Paul. This one may move up the charts depending on the long-term fate of the caucuses.

Significant event in nomination contest

6. 1988 Republican. Pat Robertson pushes George HW into third place. Robertson was insignificant thereafter, but the blow made Bush go on a fight of his life attack against Bob Dole in New Hampshire. Dole took the bait and was goaded into “stop lying about my record.” This convinces HW that hard negative was the way to go. That road went through the flag factory and Willie Horton, and ended at the White House. Comic relief: Al Haig.

5. 1984 Democratic. Gary Hart barely squeaked past his old boss, George McGovern. But second, no matter how distant, was enough to make him the Not Mondale and propel him up about 40 points in eight days for a New Hampshire win, a brief but genuine shot at the nomination, and (pre-Donna Rice) 1988 front-runner status. The Right Stuff sank like Gus Grissom’s capsule, and you're an old timer if you catch that reference.

Decisive event in nomination contest

4. 2004 Democratic. Iowa was the whole ball game in 2004. Nothing that happened after Iowa mattered nearly as much as what happened in Iowa.  The guy who won got the nomination, the guy in second got VP.  And the guy who came in third...

The Dean Scream goes down as the single most memorable caucus moment, but everyone forgets The Scream was after The Much More Important Disappointing Third Place. 

Made History

3. 1976 Democratic. This one made both Jimmy Carter and the caucuses themselves. Carter didn’t actually win this, you know. He was second to Uncommitted. But I know folks who still brag “Jimmy Carter slept on my couch.”

I’m torn about ranking a caucus that directly produced a president below one that didn't. But read on.

2. 1980 Republican. In the first true Iowa Republican caucus, an obscure former ambassador, spy boss, and failed Senate candidate George Herbert Walker Bush shocked the ten foot tall colossus of the GOP, Ronald Reagan. This one win puts Poppy on the map and ultimately on the ticket (after the botched Ford “co-presidency” deal at the `80 convention).

So why rank this ahead of Jimmy Carter, especially since Bush Sr. lost that 1980 nomination? The ripple effect. No Iowa win = no Bush 41. And with no HW, do you REALLY think Bush 43 or 45 (heh) would have made it on their own? 1976 made a president, but 1980 made a dynasty.

Number 1: 2008 Democratic. There's no question the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses created a president. Iowa was the honing ground for Barack Obama's message and appeal and ground game. We eliminated the entire second tier, and proved that voters in one of the whitest places in America would support a black candidate. Remember, a lot of African-American voters were sticking with Hillary Clinton before Iowa, because Obama "couldn't win." Iowa shattered that myth and the perception of Clinton's inevitability.

It's too soon to tell, but the 2008 caucuses may have ushered in not just one president, but a whole era, a new alignment of states that ends the 1968 Nixon-Wallace southern-western coalition for good, at least at the presidential level

2008 was a whole new map. As late as the first John Edwards campaign, people were sill seriously saying it was impossible to break the Republican "electoral college lock" without southern white male voters.  In a realignment, you look for counter-trends, and what better example than West Virginia, which went for Carter in 1980 and Dukakis in `88? The old South has been replaced by the new South - Virginia and Florida twice, North Carolina once, and Georgia beccoming an in-play mega-state.

Barack Obama fueled this alignment, which would not have been possible without that Iowa win.

The 1976 caucuses made one president, but his victory is a mere footnote to a Republican era, brought about by the intensity of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. The 1980 Republican caucuses made two presidents, but they followed the electoral footsteps of others.

How many presidents in an era? Only time will tell if Obama is able to transfer this alignment to a successor. If the 2008 caucuses ushered in an Obama Realignment, like the FDR Relignment or the Nixon-Wallace Realignment, they could lead to four or five presidents. Thus, the number one rank.

For now.

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