Some are calling for Chris Christie to skip the Iowa Caucuses, if he does, he’s doomed.
The other day I posted on my Facebook page that if Chris Christie really does decide to skip the Iowa Caucuses in the 2016 nomination cycle, he’s pretty much doomed. I did this in response to rumblings about a possible road to the Republican nomination for New Jersey’s governor that ignored Iowa. In response, a conservative friend of mine pushed back by making the same argument that some Republicans have been making since at least John McCain’s run in 2000. The logic goes something like this; not only can a moderate skip Iowa and win the Republican nomination, but they probably have to because the universe of Republican caucus goers in the Hawkeye State is dominated by evangelicals who are unlikely to back a moderate member of the GOP. It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately it’s also wrong. Anyone who wants to be the nominee has to contest Iowa and if they don’t they are doomed.
One of the major reasons that you can’t skip Iowa is just the nature of how the media covers the race for the nomination. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein summed up this line of thinking back in 2011 in response to reports that Jon Huntsman was going to skip Iowa:
Most people don’t pay attention to presidential politics until very late in the game. When they start paying attention — when the non-obsessive section of the news media starts paying lots of attention — is around the Iowa caucuses, and a candidate not playing there will, naturally, not receive the publicity that the other candidates receive. Then comes the caucuses, and another blast of publicity that the non-participant will miss. And the last bit is that the winners in Iowa will at the very least be taken more seriously, and perhaps get the kind of windfall positive publicity that Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Gary Hart in 1984 got.
It’s hard for political junkies to remember this, but most Americans don’t pay that much attention to presidential races, at least until states actually start voting. So it really does matter what the media covers in the week or so between Iowa and New Hampshire. To a lot of voters if you aren’t being covered in that week, because say you came in sixth in Iowa, you just aren’t on their radar. The result is that a win in Iowa can start of reinforcing cycle for a presidential campaign; positive news stories about your win create a surge in the polls which in turn causes more money to roll in. Both of which drive more positive coverage which in turn sends the campaign even higher. Meanwhile doing poorly in Iowa can create a negative cycle in which a poor showing drives coverage that says you’re in trouble which causes donations to dry up and polls to go down (who wants to vote for someone who’ll lose anyway?) which in turn drives more negative coverage. This of course makes the situation even worse.
Does this mean a candidate has to win Iowa in order to win the nomination? Or course not, just ask Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. What it does mean though is that there are three or perhaps four “tickets out of Iowa” and so you have to place at least thrid, or maybe fourth if you’re lucky, to go on to the next stage in New Hampshire. In this sense the Iowa Caucuses are a way of winnowing the field down to the top competitors. As I’ve written before, it’s helpful to think of the contest for presidential nominations as starting a lot earlier than the actual caucuses and primaries that get all the attention. Some call this period “the invisible primary.” During this period a lot of candidates run invisible campaigns and decide to drop out before even announcing because they calculate they can’t raise enough money or get the backing of enough party actors to win. This results in a sort of invisible winnowing cycle that narrows the field early on. There’s another winnowing cycle in the summer and fall before Iowa where candidates drop out after they’ve publicly declared but before anyone has actually voted or caucused, Tim Pawlenty dropping out in 2011 is a classic example of this. Iowa is then another winnowing of the field down to two or three top contenders with the final victor decided soon after. The public campaign can go on of course, but by March if not much earlier, the winner has been decided.
All of this doesn’t mean that Christie has to win Iowa. Indeed that might be out of reach for a governor from the Northeast with a moderate record on social issues. Instead Christie should try and downplay Iowa, just as John McCain did in 2008 and Bill Clinton did in 1992, and try and lower expectations for Iowa as much as possible so a third place finish will look like a healthy showing in the lead up to New Hampshire. While doing this he should quietly put together a campaign in Iowa that will ensure he finishes in the top three. A coalition of affluent suburban Republicans, elected officials and small town non-evangelical voters would do nicely. Meanwhile he should also focuses on wining New Hampshire. Christie probably can’t win Iowa, unless he faces nominal opposition on caucus night, but he could easily do well enough to stay alive until New Hampshire and seal the deal there. This is no sure thing of course, becoming president is very hard. But if Christie skips Iowa he faces almost certain defeat.
Photo by Mel Evans/AP