Sunday, June 12, 2011

Can Michele Bachmann Win Iowa?

The idea that Iowa could play a "wildcard" role in the 2012 Republican primary has become more popular of late. It is increasingly common to hear pundits suggest that a fringe candidate could win Iowa and, potentially, the nomination. The Republican establishment is nervous about the influence of the Tea Party and social conservatives: During the 2010 midterms, Republicans lost some important races (e.g. in Nevada and Delaware) due to the nomination of unelectable Tea Party favorites. Their nightmare is that the same could happen in a presidential race. Some establishment Republicans have even suggested that New Hampshire should be given more priority, as it has (supposedly) more sober-minded voters.

Michele Bachmann, with her ties to Iowa, Tea Party credentials, and low perceived electability make her the subject of the establishment's fears. (In time, similar fears may arise concerning Herman Cain.)

But do Iowans actually have a history of voting for unelectable candidates? Let's consider the winners of the Iowa Caucus since the modern primary system was established in 1980. For the sake of comparison, we will also look at the winners of the New Hampshire primary. Incumbent presidents have been omitted from these lists, as they won almost automatically in each case.

1980 -- George Bush Sr.
1988 -- Bob Dole
1996 -- Bob Dole
2000 -- George Bush Jr.
2008 -- Mike Huckabee

As the list reveals, Iowa's adventurous spirit is highly exaggerated. Indeed, many Tea Partiers reviewing the list of winners would say that Iowa is a state full of "RINO"s. Only Huckabee might be seen as a sort of "insurgent" candidate, but even then it's a stretch. Huckabee was a governor for 10 years and was not known for his extreme positions. (In fact, Huckabee was mightily criticized by the Republican establishment for being too moderate on economic issues.) Nor was Huckabee viewed as unelectable. His executive experience and affable, articulate presentation most likely made him more electable than John McCain, who won the nomination that year.

Now let's consider the New Hampshire winners.

New Hampshire
1980 -- Ronald Reagan
1988 -- George Bush Sr.
1996 -- Pat Buchanan
2000 -- John McCain
2008 -- John McCain

Many Tea Partiers view New Hampshire as RINO territory. And several liberal-to-moderate Republicans did win the state. But Buchanan won there in 1996, and in 1980 Reagan--then seen by many Democrats as too extreme to win a general election--placed first.

Thus, the history of Iowa shows that its voters place a high premium on electability, and its winners are not always conservative. It is just as willing as New Hampshire to select a RINO, and perhaps moreso.

That doesn't mean a Tea Partier or a staunch conservative can never win in Iowa. But it does suggest that for Bachmann to stand a chance, she must first improve her perceived electability. Iowa does not have a history of taking risks.