In what is known as the “silly season” of presidential politics — the 12 months prior to the initial primaries — most of the focus is on fund-raising and meaningless polls. Often forgotten are tangible qualities such as strategy, management and fiscal discipline.
With regard to the latter, arguably as important as the amount of money a candidate raises is the sum the campaign husbands for use during the crucial early primary season. Many a primary campaign has crashed partly due to spendthrift ways. Sen. John McCain’s campaign might qualify.
On the strategic front, everyone knows Iowa and New Hampshire are the two “must-show” early states in the presidential selection process. This has been true for most of the past few decades, and remains conventional wisdom today. But how much utility remains in this age-old insight?
First, as a caucus state, Iowa requires a substantial time commitment from candidates disproportionate to its meager delegate haul — in addition to the monetary expenditure necessary to win or place there.
Of course, traditionally, the value of the early small states was more related to the media attention a victory or unexpected second-place showing would garner a candidate, as well as the financial contributions that would begin flowing, than the few delegates at stake. This made the time commitment worth it, and certainly paid off for Jimmy Carter, who came out of nowhere in 1976 to place second behind an uncommitted slate, which propelled him to victory in the New Hampshire primary, the nomination and the presidency. Mr. Carter’s success put the Iowa caucuses on the map.
Second, the data show a mediocre correlation between winning Iowa and capturing the nomination, and even less a connection to winning the presidency. For Democrats, out of the seven non-incumbents that won the Hawkeye state since and including 1972, only three won that party’s nomination and one of these was then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000, a virtual incumbent. The others were Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.
But how do Republicans fare? Out of the four non-incumbents that have won Iowa since and including 1976, when the GOP began participating in the state’s caucuses, two won the party nomination — Bob Dole in 1996 and President Bush in 2000, the only one to win the presidency. Indeed, the only non-incumbent candidate from either party to win the Iowa caucus and go on to win the presidency is the current White House occupant. This brings to mind former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu’s quip, “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”
What about the utility of winning Iowa as a booster toward capturing New Hampshire? Surprisingly, only three non-incumbent Democrats have won both states — Ed Muskie in 1972, then-VP Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004. Remarkably, no non-incumbent Republican has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Hence, historically, the eventual Republican winner gets no boost from Iowa.
How does the Granite State compare to Iowa? During the years 1952-1988, winning the New Hampshire primary was a leading indicator of whether a candidate would win the presidency, as the general election victor invariably won the state’s primary. The overall picture, however, tells a different story as in the period of 1952-2004, excluding sitting vice presidents and Massachusetts candidates, who tend to win there, most non-incumbent nominees from either party didn’t win the state’s primary.
And in 1992, Bill Clinton broke the mold by winning the presidency without having won the New Hampshire primary and President Bush did an encore in 2000. Thus, the last two non-incumbent presidential victors failed to win the Granite State primary. It remains to be seen whether this trend becomes an Iowa-like barometer for who won’t win the presidency.
Moreover, in the last couple of decades, Iowa — and to a lesser extent New Hampshire— has been trending left. Democrat candidates have won the Hawkeye State four of the past five elections (1988-2004). Recently, Republican candidates haven’t fared much better, losing three of the last four elections.
Consequently, it would behoove Fred Thompson to skip Iowa, where Mitt Romney has a six-month, insurmountable lead considering the time and resources he has devoted there, and perhaps even New Hampshire given Mr. Romney’s Massachusetts base.
A legitimate excuse for Mr. Thompson is that he is getting in late. Extending this logic, he should skip the entire Northeast, as Mr. Romney and Rudolph Giuliani will dominate that region. By doing so, Mr. Thompson could focus on his natural base and the early states of South Carolina, Florida (a focus of Mr. Giuliani), Georgia, and California, where the Republican Party remains conservative, though the state as a whole does not.
Admittedly, this is a novel strategy, but Mr. Thompson has said he will run “a different kind of campaign.” In addition to using the Internet for fund-raising and communicating his message, a New Age campaign should include innovative political strategies such as regional primary targeting.
South Carolinians won’t care whether Mr. Thompson skips Iowa or New Hampshire; in fact, they’re likely to be flattered by the extra attention. And other Southern states, including Florida, will be more interested in how South Carolina votes than in the Iowa and New Hampshire results.
This approach would enable Mr. Thompson to save immense resources while exploiting his geographical strength. In pursuing this “Sunbelt” strategy, combined with targeting the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, other key moderate states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, and California — and letting Messrs. Romney and Giuliani battle in the more liberal Northeastern and Upper Midwest states, Mr. Thompson would put his twist on the trail blazed by the two most successful Republican candidates of the last 40 years — Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.