The Iowa Trap

The Iowa Trap
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DES MOINES, Iowa – It doesn’t happen often in politics, but every once in a while, someone pulls back the green curtain on a time-honored exercise in democracy and reveals an uncomfortable truth.

Such was the case in Des Moines on Saturday when the circus came to town in the form of a dozen potential Republican White House hopefuls and the masses of journalists already following their every move.

The would-be candidates varied in level of earnestness for their possible presidential runs, but they all shared the same goal: wooing the 1,200 or so conservative activists on hand at the kickoff Iowa cattle call of 2016, co-hosted by Congressman Steve King and the conservative group Citizens United.

Terry Branstad­—Iowa’s avuncular and scrupulously mustachioed sixth-term governor—was on hand to play his well-worn role as ring master-in-chief for the quadrennial ritual that has been one of the state’s most lucrative and aggrandizing traditions over four decades.

During a press conference, Branstad urged all of the would-be candidates to come here early and often.

Anyone who dared not heed this counsel, the governor warned, risked suffering the fate that befell Rudy Giuliani—who bypassed Iowa on the way to running one of the most underachieving presidential campaigns in recent history. “My advice is you skip Iowa at your own peril,” Branstad said, adding the standard line that there are only “three tickets out” of the state for candidates who hope to make it to New Hampshire and beyond.  

But what about John McCain?

The Arizona senator skipped Iowa the same year that Giuliani did—finishing in fourth place behind even the singularly forgettable candidacy of Fred Thompson—and still managed to emerge as the last Republican candidate standing when it was all said and done.   

Branstad had an answer for that. McCain may have won the nomination that year, the governor explained, but he lost the general election. Maybe if he had spent more time in this Midwest battleground state during primary season, it would have paid dividends for McCain that November. Branstad could have stopped there. Instead, he kept talking.

 “And also,” he said. “It’s good for Iowa’s economy.”

There it was.

The reality that Iowa hotels, Iowa restaurants, Iowa political consultants and Iowa taxpayers in general all stand to benefit from the caucuses is no revelation. It’s just that those who are in on the joke don’t typically say so when the cameras are rolling.

But perhaps Branstad’s bracing moment of candor might now serve as a wake-up call for some of the likely Republican presidential candidates, who currently are best positioned to win their party’s nomination. These men might now ask themselves a critical question before launching their campaigns in earnest: Is Iowa worth it?

It’s not that the caucuses are inconsequential—to the contrary, in fact. History leaves no doubt that a strong showing here can launch an underdog into contention and a frontrunner into the realm of inevitability.

As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney made a big bet on Iowa that paid off when his last-minute, all-out blitz in the state resulted in a near-tie for first place. That result then helped to firm up his solid standing in New Hampshire, and off he went.

But Saturday’s gathering on the edges of downtown Des Moines was emblematic of the bright red danger sign that Iowa represents for the Republican Party’s hopes of finding a new formula for success after having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

It is often said here that Iowa serves to “level the playing field” and compels high-flying politicians to become more grounded as they fight for one vote at a time.

The numbers tell the story.

In the 2012 caucuses, for example, only 122,255 of the 614,913 eligible Republican voters participated—good enough for a record turnout but one that amounted to a mere 19.8 percent participation rate.

Only the most passionate and committed Iowa Republicans—who collectively are older, whiter and more devoutly conservative than the national GOP electorate as a whole—are willing to give up an hour or more of their time on a cold January night to take part in the tradition.

Therefore, the easiest way to stand out in a crowded field in courting their support is by doling out heaping portions of the kind of red meat rhetoric that wows the conservative crowds but also fills national Democratic strategists with visions of President Hillary Clinton dancing in their heads.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was widely deemed to be one of Saturday’s winners, as he shattered presumptions that he might be something of a dud on the stump. From the moment he took the stage, the Iowa audience was putty in Walker’s politically skilled hands.  

They nodded along as he related a story about shopping at Kohl’s department store, illustrating his middle-class bona fides, and applauded as he ran through his solidly conservative record on everything from gun rights to tort reform.

But Walker’s biggest cheers came when he raised a bullet point in his resume that Democrats would be all too pleased to highlight, as well, should he earn the GOP nomination. “People think it’s important to protect the integrity of each and every vote cast, so we required in our state, by law, a photo ID to vote,” Walker said to boisterous cheers.

The knowledge that such voter ID laws are anathema to the minority communities that the GOP has been working so hard to court was of little consequence in this particular setting. Walker, after all, had won the day’s battle in Iowa. Less certain, however, was how it would play in the wider war.  

And then there were the sideshows.

Reality TV star and recurring non-candidate Donald Trump accepted an invitation to appear at the event, embracing with solemn aplomb his role as resident circus clown. Trump insisted repeatedly and with a straight face that he was once again on the verge of launching a presidential campaign of his own, and this time, it was going to be bigger, bolder and classier than ever. 

During his speech, Trump took the opportunity to push back against Jeb Bush’s assertion that many people who come to America illegally do so as an “act of love” to benefit their families. “Half of them are criminals,” Trump said. “They’re coming for love?” 

And then there was Sarah Palin, who made her first headlines of the weekend on Friday night when she swooped into the lobby of the journalist-infested Marriott hotel and said that she is “seriously” considering a 2016 presidential run.

The next day, the former Alaska governor took to the stage where she called President Obama “an overgrown little boy” in a rambling, cable news, sound-bite-ready speech that drew a big standing ovation.

Few, if any, political professionals consider Palin or Trump to be plausible presidential material. But their presence among the serious contenders in Iowa—and, quite possibly, their participation in future confabs in the state later this year—risks diminishing the sincere White House aspirants.

A swing voter in Ohio or Colorado who happened to have caught a two-minute report about Saturday’s event on the evening news would have had a hard time distinguishing the pretenders from the contenders.  

Rick Perry, for instance, is aiming to revitalize his national image following his disastrous 2012 presidential bid. But Perry had the misfortune of being assigned the speaking slot directly following Palin—a programming oddity on the order of Woodstock producers scheduling Sha-Na-Na, the 1950s throwback band, right before Jimi Hendrix.

Soon after he began, Perry’s speech was interrupted by a group of protesters who were brought to the United States illegally as children and held signs reading “Deportable?”—a reference to a disparaging term for a human being that Congressman King had coined in a recent tweet.   

“You’re not welcome here!” someone in the crowd shouted, as the protesters were hustled out of the room.

No one can doubt that the Iowa caucuses serve as a useful tool to help galvanize the conservative base—a critical voting component to any national electoral victory for the Republican Party.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose speech was among the day’s most anticipated, appeared to succeed in touting his pro-life credentials and conservative record on other issues, while at the same time projecting a “call it like I see it” approach designed to convey a commitment to avoid any hint of pandering. 

As he rattled off impressive statistics related to his own re-election win in deep-blue Jersey, Christie’s message was as clear as it was potentially compelling: I may not be your first choice, but I can win. “If our conservatism is really going to succeed, it must be able to defend itself in every part of this country,” he said.

But even if Christie’s tact proves effective, Iowa is by its nature largely set up as a battlefield for movement conservatives to determine who is the truest believer. And for several likely candidates including Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson—whose support among grassroots conservatives in Iowa is the cornerstone of their prospective White House bids—downplaying the caucuses is not an option.

But there is a reason Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mitt Romney all decided to steer clear of this weekend’s festivities that goes beyond the “scheduling conflicts” that were cited to explain their absences. Some of these likely top-tier Republican candidates—if not all four of them—will end up playing here. But they will have plenty of reason to tread lightly in doing so and to avoid panicking in the event that they fail to take off in the Hawkeye State.

Iowa Republicans, after all, can be a fickle lot.

Case in point: Gary Kirke, a West Des Moines businessman and longtime Republican powerbroker who the Des Moines Register called “an institution in Iowa politics.” Kirke has long been supportive of Romney and even urged him personally to run a third time, according to the Register. But last week, Kirke caught wind of a comment that Romney had made in reiterating his belief that the earth is, in fact, getting warmer.

“Romney I like a lot, but he came out with saying that he believes in global warming, and I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, so I’ve knocked him out,” Kirke told RealClearPolitics. “I can’t tell you the number of emails and calls I got today. Everyone’s upset about that.”

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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