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The Iowa Curse

By Susan Estrich

LOS ANGELES -- Call it the curse of Iowa.

If you don't believe me, go back 40 years and name a Democrat who has actually won in Iowa and gone on to be elected president.

There's only one, and no, it's not Jimmy Carter. Actually, he finished second in Iowa, behind uncommitted.

The right answer is Bill Clinton, and it was in 1996, when he ran unopposed, not in 1992, when he lost the state, ceding it to its favorite son, Tom Harkin, and then lost New Hampshire as well before going on to win the presidency.

On the Republican side, the right answer is one, as well: George W. Bush, in 2000, who did win Iowa, but then lost in New Hampshire before winning the nomination.

Why such a record of failure for a state that claims such legitimacy in the process and captures the eyes of the nation every four years?

Part of the answer is because what it takes to win Iowa is not necessarily what it takes to win a nomination or general election. If you have any doubt, let me give you two words: Mike Huckabee.

The big winner in Iowa is not a guy that most savvy Republicans are ready to bet on as a national candidate. Too mistake-prone, too inexperienced, too many tax hikes and commutations, not yet vetted, too many troubling sermons in the closet, not to mention the son who killed the dog.

As one of the smartest Republicans I know said to me not long ago, "this is not a year for a Huckabee."

Not when we face as complicated and dangerous a world as we do.

Indeed, it's almost funny to listen to some conservatives on the topic of Huckabee. Sitting in with Greta and Shep on their caucus night coverage, no one was more negative about the former Arkansas governor than Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham. Tom Tancredo was a close third. Republicans are distancing themselves from their Iowa winner, Huckabee, and their very likely New Hampshire winner, John McCain, more than even the most loyal Hillary-ites are doing with their other choices, Obama and Edwards.

The difference between Democrats and Republicans this year is visible not only in the much- higher numbers and greater enthusiasm at the Democratic caucus, but in the general sense among Democrats that any of the choices would be fine, or better than fine, while Republicans are straining to find one they can live with.

But Iowa's spotty record in picking presidents also has to do with what happens after Iowa. George Bush, who beat Ronald Reagan here in 1980 and claimed he had the "Big Mo" that turned into a big no, discovered that momentum is not the only thing you get when you win in Iowa. The lights brighten, but those are also the lights which produce a level of scrutiny that many Iowa winners never face until they win, and don't comfortably survive. See, for instance, Bob Dole in 1988, whose tax positions became the focus of laser-like scrutiny, and devastating negative ads, after his victory in Iowa.

That's why the Clinton people I've talked to privately, not to mention the candidate herself, are not nearly as devastated by the results in Iowa as some of the more hyperbolic coverage would suggest. Would you rather win than lose in Iowa? Sure, if it helps you to lock up the nomination early, without an extended fight, the way John Kerry did in 2004. Does Obama get a bounce, and deserve one? Absolutely.

But is the race over, or was it ever going to be, after Iowa? No. That just wasn't going to happen this year on the Democratic side, with two such well-financed and well-organized candidates as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, neither of whom was going to take the results of Iowa and New Hampshire as determinative of New York and California. What the Clinton people believe is that Obama, whatever benefit he gets from his Iowa victory, and there will surely be some, will also now face a level of scrutiny that the newcomer who is a favorite of the press corps has yet to face. Huckabee won't be the only one who goes under the microscope as a result of this process.

"If Obama can grow, he could do it," a Republican Hillary-hater said to me.

Indeed, and he should. But first, he is going to face questions that go beyond his message of hope and unity and change and focus instead on his record as a state senator in Illinois and a member of the U.S. Senate.

Why all those "present" votes? What issues was he avoiding? Why? What are his accomplishments? Where did he lead? What has he done? What makes him ready not simply to win Iowa, but to lead the country in dangerous times when any hint that he is naive, not tough enough, not ready for a world where we face evil, becomes the kiss of death.

No one should take away from Barack Obama the historic importance of his victory in this state that has long been criticized by minority Democrats for being too white for the prominence it gets in a party that depends on African Americans as its most loyal constituents. To state the obvious, Barack Obama won Iowa because he won the white vote, and that will help him among minority voters in states like South Carolina who were waiting to see if the young senator could appeal to white voters before deciding to cast their own votes with him.

As I've said from the beginning, and maybe it's just Pollyanna but I don't think so, if Hillary can't beat Obama, she shouldn't be the nominee; if he can beat her, he should be. In either case, they'll be stronger candidates for having gone through the process, although it might not feel that way today on the Clinton bus. But it's too early for the Obama folks to be picking out offices in the West Wing.

It is a long way from Des Moines to D.C., as many previous Iowa winners have discovered.

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