Over the weekend, The Register of Des Moines trained its distant gaze on the 2016 Iowa caucuses in the wake of the 2012 elections, and with some big questions hanging in the air amid the confetti and blame.
Do we believe that Republicans lost a presidential election due, in no small part, to their party’s lack of appeal among growing minority groups and socially progressive youngsters? It has been suggested, repeatedly. If you owned stock in the word “demographics,” you’d be rolling in dough by now.
And if we believe that demographics stuff, should the GOP start its nomination process in Iowa, where traditional caucus-goers tend to be older, white and socially conservative? And where party officials may be only vaguely aware of who wins?
Former Republican Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants of Sioux City tells the DMR that a candidate who doesn’t want to sprint so far to the right will have to decide whether to skip Iowa, or run here and catch heck from the righteous right. Others disagree:
Religious conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats thinks the only adapting the GOP needs to do is to pick bold conservatives instead of more moderate candidates like Bob Dole, John McCain and Romney.
“Where we lost this election is we put up a candidate who had very little difference with the person he was running against,” said Vander Plaats, a Grimes resident who endorsed Santorum for president.
Rants said he has gotten emails from fellow Republicans who, like Vander Plaats, say the party lost Tuesday because it didn’t pick a candidate who was conservative enough.
“What did they want, a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock? Like that would have worked better?” Rants said, referring to two Republicans who lost their races for Congress after they made controversial comments about rape that some thought hurt the GOP brand. “Not likely. The fact is we can’t be the party of old white guys.”
Craig Robinson at The Iowa Republican says nuts to the idea that skipping Iowa means avoiding social issues:
Despite the favorable odds that Iowa will once again lead off the presidential contest in 2016, there are those who believe that the caucuses are the root cause of all the trouble that Republican nominees have to deal with in the general election. It’s sad that the media, especially an Iowa newspaper, continues to fall for this line of garbage.
To think that a Republican presidential candidate wouldn’t have to answer questions on social issues or immigration in a debate if Iowa didn’t go first is nonsense. Let’s remember, it was George Stephanopoulos who asked the Republican candidates a question about contraception, not an Iowan. In fact, the left’s war on women came in response to a congressional hearing in Washington D.C., not a campaign event in a small Iowa town. And by the way, nobody knew who Sandra Fluke was until after the Iowa caucuses.
Robinson goes on to argue that attempting the old Iowa sidestep, as Mitt Romney and John McCain basically did, didn’t deny them the nomination but did hurt their efforts to win Iowa’s critical electoral votes in the general election. And the next GOP nominee may face more tough electoral math.
All this proves that, in politics, it’s never too early to speculate.
But it is way too early to tell whether Iowa will be influential, or not.
A lot of times, the first read on an election turns out to be wrong, or at least oversold. Just three general elections ago we were talking about the grand triumph of the values voter. Now, same-sex marriage is polling well and on the march.
Clearly, demographic trends are not looking good for Republicans. Beating culture war swords into plowshares may not be bad advice. But events, incidents, scandals, a crisis or two and changing political circumstances may also matter, and we don’t know what they’ll look like. In 2000, we had no idea that by 2004 our politics would be defined by a fight against terrorism. There’s also an election in 2014, and we don’t know how that will shake out.
Much will depend on who runs and does not run in 2016. If we get a slug of more moderate-ish candidates from the Morning Joe wing of the GOP who actually look like national contenders, they may be inclined to downplay the caucuses. The caucuses could become a less meaningful fight for attention between more socially conservative candidates.
If Hillary Clinton runs, she not only chases away many potential Democratic candidates but may also prompt some Republicans to think twice. But who knows what she’ll do?
There’s also an argument to be made that the caucuses already are diminishing in importance. The 2012 cycle showed that the campaign is now steered more by national issues, nationally televised debates and national media coverage, etc., than what happens out here in the hustings. Iowa caucus-goers like one-on-one time, and it’s still valuable for a lesser-known wannabe, but Iowa preferences are also shaped by those national factors. And that infernal straw poll. Don’t get me started.
But Robinson is right. You can’t run for the Republican nomination and avoid social issues. The party’s not going to change that much in four years. If a candidate believes evangelical voters in Iowa are pushing the GOP in the wrong direction, come to Iowa and say so, to their faces. You may get jeered. You might also score points for guts.
And, as Robinson suggests, if you’re running to be president of the whole country, you ought to run in every state with a nominating contest. Playing hide-and-seek across the primary map, ducking into this state, avoiding that one, doesn’t bode well for a candidate’s national chances.
Maybe you have a crystal ball.