March 10, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

It's Politics Time Again in Iowa


It’s early days yet in Iowa. The state girls’ basketball tournament is barely over. Farmers won’t start planting the first corn or soybeans for another month yet. The last vestiges of snow still fringe some fields.

But it’s never too early for politics in the state that seems to have a lock on the quadrennial jockeying for pole position in the presidential sweepstakes. Already, the state’s malls and main streets are aswarm with politicians seeking the blessing of Iowans on their presidential dreams. Republicans especially: there seems to be more of them, and they’re working harder to win that all-important Iowa Republican caucus eleven months away, on February 9 of next year.

Except the all-important Republican caucus isn’t all that important. In truth, it’s more of a poison chalice than a ticket to the White House. Judging by the results of the last two primaries there, the winner will never again win anything at all, and instead, like the snows, will melt away when spring comes and the serious campaign begins.
Let’s do the math—and the history.

In 2012, the immortal Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus with 29,839 votes. This is less than 1 percent of Iowa’s population. In fact, it’s only 4 percent of the total Iowa vote that the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, got in the general election.

In other words, the Republican caucus not only doesn’t represent Iowans, it doesn’t even represent Iowa Republicans.

Four years earlier, the caucus winner was Mike Huckabee, with 34 percent of the vote; the eventual nominee, John McCain, finished far behind, with 13 percent.

After their respective victories, both Santorum and Huckabee vanished from sight, except to viewers of Fox News. (Both are back in Iowa this month; it must be inbred, like the migration of Canadian geese.)   

Romney came in second in both caucuses and finished nearly tied with Santorum in 2012. But to do this well in Iowa, he had to swing so far to the right that he spent the general election campaign trying to get back to the middle, where the real votes are. In this he failed, both nationally and in Iowa.

Incidentally, the other second-place finishers in past contended Iowa Caucasus, going back to 1988, were Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson.  Older readers may remember them. Younger readers can check Wikipedia. 

In short, Republican caucus-goers are activists mobilized by the party’s far right wing, which is dominated by a fringe element in the state’s northwest corner, loyal to the Dutch Lutheran church and the Farm Bureau and personified by Rep. Steve King, the nation’s leading anti-immigration demagogue whom the Des Moines Register has called “an embarrassment to Iowa.”   

Why then would any serious presidential hopeful head for Iowa, where he or she will be forced to say things that will doom any national hopes, just to stay competitive in a provincial contest that is likely to be won by the most unelectable candidate around?

Well, it’s a mystery. But still, they come—no less than nine of them were at the recent Iowa Ag Summit, ranging from the resurrected Santorum and Huckabee, to Jeb Bush, to George Pataki, a former New York governor who is now gone and, to most people, forgotten.

Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, was also there, and his recent political contortions are Exhibit A of the perils of the Iowa primary.

Walker is solidly conservative, as proved by his battles with the public service unions in Wisconsin. But he was a relative moderate on such hot-button conservative issues as abortion and immigration. In a political ad, he once said that “reasonable people can disagree” on abortion. On immigration, he hinted at support for citizenship or legal status for illegal immigrants.

No more. He has refused to say whether he accepts evolution. He says he would sign a bill banning all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. On immigration, he now opposes anything resembling “amnesty.” As he told Fox News: “My view has changed.” Most recently, he signed a right-to-work law that he earlier opposed.

Walker’s swing to the right has been rewarded with the lead, for the moment, in public opinion polls in Iowa, where he is at about 20 percent, with Huckabee second.

In a sense, Walker is trapped. If he can’t persuade Republicans in the neighboring state of Iowa that he’s the most plausible conservative alternative to Bush, his campaign is probably over. But the extreme stands needed to sway Iowa Republican caucus-goers will kill any national appeal he may have.

In other words, the Iowa caucus is meaningless. It’s sad to see a man sell his soul—but it’s worse to see him give it away.

Bush faces a similar dilemma. His supporters say he is there simply because all candidates have to be. But his nationwide appeal is as a moderate, which means he can only win by losing the caucus vote.

Oddly, Iowa Democrats don’t seem to have this problem. Their last contested caucus was won by Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, a victory that showed he could triumph in a mostly white swing state; the Iowa caucus literally propelled Obama toward the White House.

Iowa has always been a divided state. Eastern Iowa is heavily industrial, pro-union, more urban more Catholic, more liberal, and votes Democratic. Western Iowa is more agricultural, more Protestant, more conservative, and votes Republican.

This makes it a classic swing state. It went for Obama in the last two presidential elections. For years, it had one Republican senator and one Democratic senator, but last year’s Republican swing gave both senatorial seats to the GOP. The governor, Terry Branstad, is a moderate Republican. Only the legislature is split, with one house controlled (barely) by Democrats and the other by Republicans. 


Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.


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