By the time we get to Tuesday morning, the pundits will register their political diagnostics on the Iowa Caucuses. Some embrace the importance of this voter participation rich event while others write it off as meaning little. One’s point of view usually corresponds closely to how your preferred candidate has come through this most arduous process.
While I’ve never been sure just what it means, the Iowa Caucuses count for something. First, they winnow the field. After a year (or more) of fundraising and televised debates, every campaign confronts the reality that real people will turn out and state their candidate preference. It’s not a poll. It is real citizen participation. And, for those running for president who stand little likelihood of being above tiny digits, Iowa becomes a very large bump in a long road.
My first-hand experience taught me most of all how great the good people of Iowa are to be with over the course of a campaign. They engage with the candidates on their farms, in their homes, on boats and in fields for cookouts.
That said, the way to look at Iowa is through the lens of “expectations.” A candidate expected to be highly favored by Iowa caucus goers must turn in a stellar performance or risk losing in a close win. And, the candidate with low expectations that does well might well lose but come out stronger as the pack heads to New Hampshire.
Consider in 1980, it was George H.W. Bush who claimed victory in Iowa over Ronald Reagan. The close win exceeded expectations and delivered Bush a great deal of momentum going into New Hampshire. It proved, of course, not enough to win in New Hampshire and the Bush campaign shutdown in the weeks that followed. However, a strong impression remained going into the 1980 Republican Convention where Bush was nominated as Vice President.
Then, rolling forward to 1988, after the strong showing 8 years earlier and all the public office experience, Iowa proved a very big speed bump for Vice President Bush who came in third behind Pat Robertson and Bob Dole. We know that their momentum was short lived as Vice President Bush came back to win a close race in New Hampshire and march on to his party’s nomination.
So, on Monday night and Tuesday morning, view what Iowa does with a bit of skepticism. Do take note of who exceeded expectations and who failed to meet them. While in truth, nothing is really determined in Iowa, the field will likely narrow a bit more as the Democrats march on across the country from Iowa.
And, the good citizens of Iowa will once again have confounded and accelerated presidential campaigns in ways we may never fully understand! Most importantly, they show the nation that real people are fully prepared to get out of the house and fully engage in the election process. For that, they deserve our thanks!
Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore.u