Everybody Hates The Iowa Caucuses

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The Iowa caucuses are the opposite of the sitcom dad played by Ray Romano. Everybody loves Raymond, but everybody hates the Iowa caucuses.

You can almost smell the condescension toward the Iowa Freedom Summit. Sarah Palin could see it from her house. After all, the conservative cattle call featured likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates, plus some notable teases and immigration hawk Iowa Rep. Steve King.

What’s the matter with Iowa?

The national media gets tired of traipsing through Iowa’s 99 counties after the fourth fried Oreo on a stick, wearying of rubbing elbows with the unwashed masses who concern themselves with things like marriage, school prayer and other topics not on the agenda at Davos.

Establishment Republicans don’t like Iowa because not only do they have to share the stage with social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, but they might wind up winning fewer votes than them.

Conservatives are even starting to dislike the caucuses because, well, they end up being represented by Huckabee and Santorum in the presidential race. Conservative candidates with a lot of money and professional organizations — whatever you think of the relative merits of their platforms — seldom make it out of Iowa alive, making life easier for the establishment.

Iowa played a big role in giving us Barack Obama — his win over Hillary Clinton in 2008 signaled to fence-sitting Democrats nationwide that he could go all the way — and all the Bushes, since the man who would become 41 beat Ronald Reagan there in 1980.

Good government types of all political affiliations complain every four years about how small, demographically unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire wield disproportionate influence over the selection of the president.

There’s merit to many of these complaints. The Ames straw poll in particular is an embarrassing shakedown. But allow me to put in a good word for the good people of Iowa.

If you think the candidates Iowa advances are fringe-y or uncompetitive nationally, especially on the Republican side, whose fault is that? George H.W. Bush may have finished third there behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson (a fact that obviously didn’t doom his 1988 presidential campaign). But a lot of times, big-name Republicans bypass the caucuses when they don’t think they can win.

That was true of John McCain twice, Rudy Giuliani in 2008, even Jon Huntsman in 2012. When the “serious” candidates have actually spent time in Iowa, they have frequently competed (Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012) or won (Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000).

Chris Christie’s appearance at the Iowa Freedom Summit suggests he has learned from others’ mistakes.

No, Iowa hasn’t been kind to well-organized, big-money conservatives who could have more easily competed against the establishment frontrunners. But in most cases, that’s because the big-money conservatives blew it.

Phil Gramm didn’t play well on the stump. He gambled that he could challenge Iowa’s first-in-the nation status by competing in the Louisiana caucuses beforehand and lost. As in lost both the Louisiana and Iowa caucuses, finishing fifth in the latter, just two points ahead of Alan Keyes.

Fred Thompson and Rick Perry were similarly out-hustled by underfunded social conservatives. Thompson didn’t look like he wanted it. Perry didn’t look like he could count to three. Iowans are supposed to vote for them anyway?

When a candidate from Iowa or New Hampshire with little support elsewhere in the country tries to take unfair advantage of their native son status, the electorate knows to disregard the result. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign went nowhere despite winning the caucuses. New Hampshire Republican Sen. Bob Smith couldn’t even get off the ground in the Granite State primary.

If Lindsey Graham is hoping to win the nomination by running up the score in the South Carolina primary, he should be forewarned.

The bottom line is that the early states provide the only opportunity for real competition. It’s the last chance for lower-tiered candidates to have a fair fight with the big dogs and raise the money they need. After that, the race quickly shifts to who can put up ads in the greatest number of expensive media markets simultaneously.

Maybe more super PACs could even the playing field a bit. But liberals profess to dislike super PACs, except when they are liberal super PACs.

The Iowa caucuses are sort of like that Winston Churchill quote about democracy: the worst system, except for all the others tried.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.