Friday, October 23, 2015

Plotting Pathways to Primary Victory By Thinking In Time

When chatting with a friend who is not a political junkie, I questioned if Carly Fiorina’s strong Republican Debate performances can translate into strong showings in Iowa.  My friend questioned the value of the Iowa Caucuses, considering that televangelist Pat Robertson won. With the Iowa Caucuses just a 100 days away, it is worth considering the importance of the early contest and assessing paths to primary victory. 

This dialogue prompted me to review all Republican and Democrat Presidential Primary campaigns since 1976. The assertion that Pat Robertson won is an understandable misconception. He actually placed in second in 2000, thus proving that a campaign need not win in Iowa, but being in the top tier is important to survive the winnowing out.  In the case of Senator Fred Harris (D-OK) in 1976, a fourth place finish with 9.89% support had Harris proclaim that he was "winnowed in” the race. Iowa many not pick a winner, but it typically does thin the field out.

Favorite son candidates can sometimes do well in Iowa just because of their connection or proximity to the Hawkeye State.  Arguably, this was Rep. Dick Gephardt’s (D-MO 3rd) strategy in 1988.  Some thought that such connections would have similarly helped former Congresswoman  Michele Bachmann (R-MN 6th) or ex Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), but this pathway to success proved futile.  There was some speculation that in the 2016 cycle that Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) would have greatly aided by his native Iowan ties and being a next door neighbor, but that was not enough in the 2016 election cycle. 

Iowa and New Hampshire are important because they test a can test a candidates endurance, organization and strategy.  Because voters in the early primary states take their participation seriously, they expect to have lots of one-on-one encounters with hopefuls (retail politics). Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) won Iowa in 2012 on a shoestring budget because of a grassroots effort to have town halls in all 99 counties. 

What makes  the “Haweye Cauci” unique is the fact that Iowa voters take their participation seriously and expect to be courted by aspiring politicians.  Then there is the challenge of getting voters to show up at the Caucuses.  Not only must they be motivated to spend several hours on a snowy Iowa evening to play politics, but they must represent their candidate.  There are not private ballot boxes for Caucuses so Caucus goers must argue and advocate for their candidate. Thus a “silent majority” who acts according to their principles in the sanctity of the ballot box will not do.  They must go before their neighbors and plead their candidates’ cases.

Iowa Howard Dean campaigner 2004
But retail politics needs to be done right to accommodate for Iowa Stubborn.  In 2004, former Governor Howard Dean (D-VT) was the presumptive favorite as he had a large stash of cash from internet fundraising and could mobilize an army of college students to knock on doors. Well, Hawkeyes did not cotton to brigades of out of state whipper-snappers in bright orange ski hats prodding people to the caucuses.  Thus Dean was in a battle for third place.  To rally the troops after the Caucus results were announced, he did the infamous Howard Dean scream, which was the beginning of the end for him.

The Iowa contest may only sport 30 delegates split amongst the candidates, but doing well gives what 1980 GOP candidate (and later President)  George Herbert Walker Bush called “The Big Mo”.  Good publicity from being win place or show in Iowa can help for the next contest in New Hampshire. 

But where “the Big Mo”  really matters is in the “Invisible Primary” for donor dollars.  When primary voters start selecting candidates (as Iowans do not vote), traditionally financial supporters either open the floodgates or cut off the flow of funds.  People like to bet on winners and may jump on the bandwagon to curry favor with underdogs who outperform expectations. Some may claim that the “Invisible Primary” ends before selection process begins, because money in the bank allows for prudent allocation of resources. But sometimes candidates on the brink of financial collapse, like Senator John McCain in 2008 or Senator Rick Santorum’s shoestring start  in 2012, needed the infusion of finances and publicity after doing well (or significantly beating expectations) in Iowa.

Doing well in the donor primary makes a difference in expanding organization and financing media buys several weeks down the road to effectively compete in a series of contests held on the same day, like the SEC primaries (March 1st) or in a populous and diverse state in which wholesale politics is essential, like Florida (March 15th) 

In 2016, the GOP has rules that primaries before March 15th may have proportional distribution of delegates, after that time it is winner take all.  Party rules this cycle also require candidates to win six contests. Candidates need to find their pathway to victory.  

Some Republican candidates choose not to put as much emphasis on Iowa as it is not a reliable predictor of success and the agrarian and evangelical midwestern voters may not suit certain campaigns. The eastern and western edges of Iowa seem to vote for more urban and moderate candidates in GOP primaries while the center of the state can be characterized as quite evangelical and values voters. Santorum squeaked out a victory in 2012 with a campaign appealing to value voters and retail politics. Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) beat Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) 30%-27% by winning with “very conservative” voters, many of whom were evangelical value voters.

The importance of Iowa was demonstrated by the quick reversal of a social media faux pas by Donald Trump.  The brash businessman has earned a reputation of raring for a fight and never backing down. While Mr. Trump has been top of the Republican polls for the last 100 days, but a recent poll showed that he dropped in second place in the Hawkeye State behind another outsider candidate Dr. Ben Carson.  Trump's Twitter account, which he had leveraged for publicity to personally comment during the Democrat debate, forwarded a snarky dismissal of the poll, denegrating Iowans.  

Within a couple of hours, the Trump campaign deleted the tweet and expressed the regret for a young intern for the gaffe.  OK. so much for spoiling for a fight and never backing down as well as the aura of authenticity. But it goes to show the importance of not offending Hawkeyes and alienating the Charm of Iowa Stubborn 

If not Iowa, Republican candidates have to rely on doing well in New Hampshire, the first primary state.  The Granite State had a long reputation for picking Republican winners, with a couple of notable recent excecpion. Typically, New Hampshire voters are contrarian rejecting Iowa’s lead. Candidates sometimes camp out there to do tons of town hall meetings to maximize retail politics.   Senator John McCain (R-AZ) used it as his breakout moment in 2008. Conventional wisdom is that if you don’t do well in Iowa or New Hampshire, it is wise to hang it up.

A few contemporary candidates have sought to eschew the Iowa Caucuses and the First Primary in New Hampshire, much at their peril.  In 2008, Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-NYC) calculated that he would win the Sunshine State due to the number of transplanted New Yorkers. So he essentially skipped Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina and Nevada. To his chagrin, Giuliani only garnered 14.7% of the vote.  On top of that, any delegates won were cut in half since the Florida primary was held too early for Republican rules. 

In 2012, Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-UT)  iconoclastically set up his campaign HQ in Orlando thinking that Florida would lead to victory.  But Huntsman came in third in New Hampshire and dropped out by Florida.

The 2016 GOP Primary cycle features a crowded field and seems strongly influenced by debate performances.  After the second debate at the Reagan Library, businesswoman Carly Fiorina catapulted up to third place in the national polls.  All of that is well and good, but political pundits need to consider what is her plausible path to victory? At this late stage in the campaign, can an unknown candidate build an organization for effective retail politics in the caucuses or does someone like Fiorina hope that Granite State contrarianism carries the day?  Would publicity from an early primary win be enough to build a successful campaign for the SEC primaries or is the hope to be the last acceptable alternative to a frontrunner or establishment candidate?

Frontrunners in the summer before a Presidential campaign year typically do not get the nomination, otherwise there might have been a President Dean (2004), President Gephardt (2008) or President Giuliani (2008). Hardball questions often hinder early frontrunners.  The trick is to peak and the right time and not get in too late.  In the 1980 cycle, then former Governor Ronald Reagan only announced his candidacy in November 1979 and had to rush to organize for Iowa.  But back then a late entry was feasible.  In the summer of 2007, Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) announced in late for the 2008 primaries and had trouble getting traction and fundraising.  In 2011, Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) joined the 2012 GOP primaries after the Ames Straw Poll, but was hindered by the late start and a monumentally bad debate performance. 

In the 2016 cycle, it has been postulated that Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is wisely waiting in the background to pounce when the primaries start.  Cruz was the first to announce with a strong religious liberty stance that would appeal to evangelical voters.  Cruz is accused by Republican Party elites for pushing for show votes on principled policies (e.g. really repealing Obamacare, Iran Nuke Deal, defunding Planned Parenthood) which underline his “outsider” bona fides while still serving in the District of Calamity.  Cruz has a strong campaign war chest.  All signs point to strong organization in early contests and the SEC primaries.  Cruz is also competing in very small contests (like Guam and Puerto Rico) which are essential to winning enough contests to be considered for nomination.  Cruz is a skilled debater who has made good use of the limited time he has been given in debates and he has not made enemies with his opponents. Yet at the beginning of autumn 2015, Cruz is placing 5th out of 15 with 8% support in polls. 

Cruz’s path to victory would need to do well in Iowa (especially with very conservative and evangelical voters), be competitive in New Hampshire, rebound in conservative South Carolina and then be successful in the bulk of SEC primaries (including his home state of Texas) on March 1st.  This slow and steady success strategy does not have the sizzle of Trump or the establishment imprimatur for former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), but is solid strategy that has a pathway to victory.  Whether or not this works remains to be seen. 

Looking at the GOP primaries methodically may not be as much fun as hobnobbing about the horse race with always changing polls, but it understands the primary process and gives benchmarks for successful strategy rather than a blind bandwagon approach to campaigns. 


  1. Well written, sir, and awfully informative! And the video intermission was a treat, too!

    1. Thanks for your kind words. That's exactly the sort of reaction I prize from readers-- learning something with a satisfying cultural hook. Hope that you'll read more in the future.