Iowa Caucus is Great Theater, But Won't Tell Who Will Win GOP 2012 Nomination


While the vast majority of Americans will be ringing in the new year this weekend, Republican presidential candidates will be making a last second push to garner support for Tuesday’s Iowa Caucus. The Iowa Caucus marks the first primary of the highly anticipated 2012 election season.

Tuesday evening will see – at the most – roughly 150,000 Iowa Republican voters make their way to their local precinct to scribble on a piece of paper the name of the candidate they would like to see represent the Republican Party during the general election. As much as the media wants everyone to believe that the state of Iowa is critically important in the race for the White House, it isn’t. 

Yes, Tuesday night’s outcome will garner a horde of headlines and it will “establish a front-runner.” However, the greater impact to the race will be made by later primaries in states like New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. The New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries are noteworthy primaries because they possess a better track record of producing party nominations than Iowa, while a win in Florida could seal the nomination for a candidate or revive his/her campaign.

Jon Huntsman, who is notably absent from the Iowa festivities, said it best this week, stating, “They pick corn in Iowa. They actually pick presidents in New Hampshire.”

The Iowa Caucus only grabs the attention of the national media and the national audience because of its spot as the first primary. It provides the media the first real indication of which candidate voters will choose; however, Iowa often fails to provide an adequate assessment. The Caucus, when contested, has only been able to produce a GOP presidential nominee twice in the last 30 years (Bob Dole and George W. Bush). The winner of the New Hampshire primary has gone on to represent the party 67% of the time, while every GOP winner in the South Carolina primary has been selected as the party nominee. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously finished a distant fourth in 2008 – behind winner Mike Huckabee – and he went on to win in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and eventually the nomination.

The glaring problem with Iowa is that it fails to represent a diverse cross-section of the American public. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 91% of Iowans are white – a far cry from our increasingly diverse nation ­– and nearly 15% are over the age of 65. No one is going to mistake the streets of New York City, Chicago, Miami, or Los Angeles for those of Davenport, Bettendorf, and Ames anytime. In his scathing article entitled “Observations from 20 years in Iowa,” University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom said, “In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities … its population is shifting.”

Iowa is simply a starting point for the race, and – much to the dismay of Tuesday’s winner – this race is a marathon, not a sprint. The later primaries are where the race is won and lost. Sure, a poor showing in Iowa could lead to a horrible election season, but with its spot at the front of the line, it offers ample opportunities to dig out of the hole.

A win in New Hampshire highlights a connection with the moderates in the party, while a win in South Carolina exhibits a connection with the party base. Iowa is a fun kick-off to the election season, but the drama doesn’t really start until South Carolina, where the rubber meets the road for the Republican Party. A candidate could afford a mediocre finish in Iowa, but a poor showing in South Carolina, and the candidate can kiss his/her White House aspirations good-bye.

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