Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Obama-McCain Nominations and the Future of Iowa

Obama-McCain Nominations and the Future of Iowa

"Love you back," Barack Obama invariably says near the beginning of each speech, when someone from the crowd shouts "We love you."

Barack Obama loves Iowa back. The Jan. 3 caucus winner is in Des Moines tonight to mark what he's not quite calling a clinch of the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Obama near-win bodes well for Iowa keeping its first in the nation status. But on the Republican side, John McCain's nomination makes the situation a little cloudier.

John McCain's relationship with Iowa has been testy. He skipped the state in his 2000 run, with a few jabs at the caucuses and ethanol on the side. In 2008, he made a partial effort but concentrated on New Hampshire and other early states.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a history of which caucuses mattered the most to the nomination contest. In 2004, Iowa was the whole ball game. Winner John Kerry was the nominee, second place finisher John Edwards was the running mate, and, in the most infamous moment in caucus history, Howard Dean yelled. (Can anyone, ever again, hear a candidate say a list of states without thinking, "YEEEAH!"?)

2008 doesn't rank quite as high in ultimate importance to Obama's win, but it was an extremely important event in the process. This race was always going to come down to Hillary vs. Not Hillary. Iowa chose Obama, over Edwards and the carefully considered second tier, to be Not Hillary. We also proved Obama could win one of the whitest states in America, which helped unleash the overwhelming support he has received from African Americans. Lest we forget, many black voters were on the fence before Iowa; votes and polls weren't reflecting the 90-plus percent support he's now winning.

We also derailed the vaunted Clinton Machine, though some of the failings that led to her third place in Iowa were of her own misread of the caucus process.

Iowa, though, was ultimately insignificant to John McCain's nomination. So we picked Mike Huckabee over fellow also-ran Mitt Romney. Big deal. That's like the Iowa Democrats choosing Dick Gephardt over Paul Simon in 1988; interesting, but not decisive. We were just one more early state in the muddled mess that was the Republican contest in January 2008. The really important events were New Hampshire, where McCain re-ignited his campaign, and Florida, where he consigned Rudy Giuliani and his "skip the first five states" strategy to oblivion.

So what do the Obama and McCain nominations mean for Iowa's future?

It seems like a paradox, but the party that loses the White House really has more to do with Iowa going first. An Obama win would presumably mean a smooth renomination and a Republican battle. But Republican party rules say the nomination calendar can only be set by the national convention. That means they set the schedule before they know if they've won or lost. A party committee has already given preliminary approval to a plan that protects Iowa and New Hampshire's early role, then puts small states first and big states last.

But what if states break that plan? The GOP has been less obsessed with rules than the Democrats, who have spent months navel-gazing about what to do with calendar cheaters Florida and Michigan. The Republicans just said, that'll cost you half your delegates, the states and candidates said that's fine, and everyone proceeded.

If McCain wins, and the Democrats are looking at an open nomination, Iowa may be in trouble. Hillary Clinton, who came so close this year, will be an obvious front runner, and she's been making it clear that she's no fan of caucuses since at least two days before Iowa. At a New Years Day Iowa City stop, Clinton emphasized that people like shift workers and troops could not participate in the caucuses.

In that case, what may save Iowa is the state's tradition of bipartisan cooperation on the caucus date. The parties briefly flirted with separate dates this cycle, but once the Republicans settled on Jan. 3, the Democrats soon followed suit.

But even with an Obama win, Iowa may be in jeopardy. At MyDD, Jerome Armstrong writes that nomination reform (i.e. Screw Iowa) may be on the agenda as the Clinton and Obama campaigns negotiate the price of peace. "Clinton, I'm betting, has more interest in using her capital to reform the nomination process" than in a vice presidential nomination, Armstrong writes.

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