2014 Iowa caucuses will likely have little bearing on 2016 presidential race, observers say

Off-year caucuses have little meaning other than setting baselines for campaigns

James Q. Lynch
Published: December 20 2013 | 5:45 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:06 am in
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Although a roster of Republican presidential wannabes and a parade of Democrats with presidential ambitions or, perhaps, vice presidential possibilities, have graced the stages of Iowa, it’s not 2016 yet.

“The 2016 election will be here soon enough, but first things first,” said Joe Shanahan, former spokesman for Gov. Tom Vilsack and now a partner in LS2, a Des Moines-based political consulting firm.

“First things” for Democrats include electing Rep. Bruce Braley to succeed Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring, as well as defeating Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, taking control of the Iowa House and, with Rep. Tom Latham’s retirement announcement, flipping the 3rd District from red to blue.

“I think most activist Democrats are focused on 2014 more than 2016” when they attend their off-year caucuses a month from now, Shanahan said. “I believe and hope Iowa Democrats will focus on the work at hand and not entertain any distractions at the mid-term caucuses by presidential wannabes.”

Sentiments are similar on the GOP side. Whether realistic or not, they see possibilities to win an open Senate seat and two open U.S. House seats, defend the governor’s office and capture control of the Iowa Senate.

The mid-term caucuses, which rarely – and deservedly – attract the attention of presidential year first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses, will roll around soon enough. The Jan. 21 caucuses are unlikely to attract the presence of those “2016ers” – folks who are eyeing the next presidential race.

“We’ll see if folks are serious about running based on travel next summer and fall,” said Derek Eadon, the Iowa director of President Obama’s 2012 re-lection effort. However, Eadon, the founder of Bluprint Strategies, an Iowa-based public affairs and political consulting firm, said it would be smart for anyone “even thinking about running to start laying groundwork.”

Other than, perhaps, setting a base line for the campaigns of eventual candidates, the off-year caucuses have little meaning, according to Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University.

“If these caucuses did mean something, we would have seen potential candidates here in force already, and we haven’t,” Goldford said.

A number of those who are seen as potential candidates have visited Iowa including Republicans Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin, Rep. Paul Ryan, Govs. Rick Perry and Scott Walker, and 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, respectively, and Democrats Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sens. Clair McCaskill and Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vice President Joe Biden.

Although some see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination, Chris Larimer, University of Northern Iowa associate professor of political science, thinks it’s too early to crown her.

Referring to the Iowa Poll, he said the small number of candidates tested and Clinton’s unfavorable score among all respondents “suggests there is room for a moderate Democrat to make inroads, should she decide not to run,” Larimer said.

She has the advantage of being out of the spotlight, “which usually helps one’s favorability,” said University of Iowa Associate Professor of Political Science Tim Hagle.

“If she starts making clear moves to run we’ll see more negatives about her -- certainly from the right, but also from the ‘Warren-wing’ of the Democrats,” Hagle said referring to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has said she won’t run in 2016. “I don’t think Biden has a chance if Clinton runs, but some others might be able to make a case for a newer, fresher face.”

However, Hagle knows from experience there is very little, if any, discussion of presidential year candidates at Republican off-year caucuses and assumes the same is true for Democrats.

“Clearly those thinking about a 2016 presidential run are taking some steps toward that goal, if only testing the waters,” he said. Iowa party regulars will be more concerned with 2014 elections, however.

“Possible presidential hopefuls will likely come in to help in various Iowa races, and that will generate some presidential speculation, but the focus for most will still be on the 2014 elections -- even if it’s with a nod and a wink,” Hagle said.

So while they mid-term caucuses don’t garner the attention of presidential year caucuses, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, said Donna Hoffman, chair of the University of Northern Iowa political science department. They fulfill the function for which they were intended – taking care of party business.

“Precinct caucuses are part of how each party in the state governs itself,” Hoffman said.

The election of delegates Jan. 21 could take on larger importance down the road if primary elections don’t determine the party’s nominees for U.S. Senate and 1st District.

Also, as Republicans were reminded two years ago simply showing can allow a party faction to seize control of the party. So-called Liberty Republicans, many supporters of 2012 presidential hopeful Rep. Ron Paul, were elected to party posts.

So for Republicans, the mid-term caucuses will be a “first step toward sorting out any lingering disagreements among party faithful between ‘old school’ Republicans and ‘Liberty Republicans,’” according to Larimer.

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