Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

EDITORIALS

The Iowa field

History tells us the caucuses won't pick a president, but they could separate the wheat from the chaff.

January 03, 2008

If history is any guide, only about 200,000 of Iowa's 3 million residents -- or about half the population of Long Beach -- will actually turn out for today's caucuses. Will this handful of voters really decide the winner of the 2008 presidential race, as the media hype and furious campaigning from contenders in both parties seem to indicate? Of course not, though there's a chance they could help determine the losers.

Iowa has a miserable history of picking presidents. Since the state jumped to the front of the line in 1972, only once has a winner in a contested race gone on to the presidency: George W. Bush in 2000. Jimmy Carter's presidential victory in 1976 doesn't count -- even though he was the top Democratic finisher in Iowa, more voters chose the "uncommitted" category and thus there was no Democratic winner that year.

More typical from Iowa, a conservative and heavily Christian state, are anomalies such as the 1988 caucuses, when George H.W. Bush, who would go on to be our 41st president, finished a humiliating third behind Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson. This is why today's race on the Republican side appears to be between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, two candidates popular with the religious right who may soon discover, as Robertson did, how difficult it is to persuade much of the country to accept a religious conservative as president.

Yet even if Iowa isn't much of a bellwether, that doesn't mean it isn't important. The outcome can destroy a campaign or turn obscure candidates into serious contenders. Sen. John F. Kerry's victory in Iowa in 2004 helped propel him to the Democratic nomination, especially after Howard Dean came off as a screaming maniac in a concession speech following his third-place caucus performance. Winning in Iowa isn't crucial, but every candidate is anxious for at least a decent showing there; momentum (and fundraising) tends to drop for anybody who finishes lower than third.

Conventional wisdom (pun unintended) suggests that New Hampshire's primaries next week will be a clearer indicator of national trends than Iowa's caucuses, but that's questionable given the wide-open nature of this year's election. It's much more likely that the nominees from both parties won't become known for some time -- at least until "Super-Duper Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when California and 21 other states will have their say. To call that unusual would be an understatement. The nation's most populous state has mostly been an afterthought in presidential politics, with the party races a foregone conclusion by the time California held its primary in June. This time may finally be different.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|