Have it Both Ways: How Jeb Bush Can Win By Losing In Iowa

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

new Quinnipiac University poll in Iowa showing Jeb Bush in seventh place, prompted the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza to declare he should just skip the Hawkeye State altogether.

Cillizza is convinced, but I’m not so sure. During a recent podcast, Jon Huntsman told me one of the thing he learned from his 2012 campaign was that it’s a mistake to skip Iowa. It’s not that you have to win, he said, but you do have to compete and finish in third or fourth place to be viable. (Cillizza notes that John McCain skipped the caucuses in 2000, but it’s worth noting that he also lost the Republican primary contest that year. Eight years later, McCain competed and finished in fourth place. He then went on to win the 2008 nomination.)

Skipping Iowa would also be an affront that might come back to haunt Jeb, should he win the primary. “He can’t skip it,” tweeted Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who is something of an Iowa expert. “Iowa is a must win General Election state for GOP.”

I’m sorry, but despite this Quinnipiac poll, there’s really no good reason that Jeb Bush can’t at least compete in the state. His campaign manager, David Kochel, is widely respected as a top Iowa guru — there’s a good chance the more conservative candidates will split the vote — and lastly, if Mitt Romney can nearly win the Iowa caucuses (indeed, he was initially pronounced the winner), why can’t Jeb finish fourth?

One thing that I think Cillizza and I agree on is that Jeb must learn the lesson of Rudy Giuliani: he can’t plan on Florida being a firewall. Failing to win at least one of the early states (and here, I think Iowa, New Hampshire and maybe South Carolina count) essentially takes you out of the game.

He absolutely, positively has to win New Hampshire. The good news is that Granite Staters like it when you’re desperate — when you need them to rescue you. So losing Iowa could ironically help you win New Hampshire — if you do it right.

So here’s the strategy: Focus all Jeb’s face time on New Hampshire (Granite Staters want attention, so he’d better camp out there), but simultaneously build an Iowa organization and run a solid, if stealthy, campaign there.

In terms of messaging, Bush should always publicly say, “We’re working hard; we believe we can win Iowa.” Meanwhile, though, “top Bush loyalists” should feed quotes to the media, lowering expectations by conceding that Jeb has privately reconciled himself to the fact that he won’t win Iowa. (And! Whatever you do, never utter the words “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.”)

The best-case scenario — the sweet spot, if you will — is for Bush to exceed expectations in Iowa (let’s say he finishes a strong third), and then to win New Hampshire. This will feed positive narratives about Bush learning his lesson, coming back from a tough defeat, gaining momentum, etc. If this plan works, Jeb Bush can grin and declare that the Granite State has made Jeb Bush “the comeback kid.”