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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2003 / 26 Tishrei, 5764

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Iowa or not? | It was back in 1976 that Jimmy Carter revolutionized the way presidential candidates campaigned by vowing to enter every primary and caucus on the Democratic calendar.

A number of political analysts bashed him severely for his audacity. As everyone knew, a candidate had to pick his targets carefully. Enter a primary here and a caucus there, build up a head of steam, get some good publicity and gather your strength and your delegates.

Campaigning everywhere, popular wisdom had it, was a waste of resources and probably impossible.

But Carter won the nomination and won the general election and presidential campaigning has never been the same. (Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News and an expert on such things, tells me he remembers Gerald Ford making the same pledge as Carter in 1976. If that is so, the strategy worked for both candidates in the primaries.)

Ever since then, candidates entered every contest they could find, the media followed, this was very good for business and states vied with each other to have early primaries so their contests would still matter in the selection of a presidential nominee.

But two states jealously guarded their "first in the nation" status: Iowa, which holds the first caucus and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary.

Just why Iowa is first, by the way, tells you something very instructive about American politics. It's a goofy patchwork of the serious and the inane that, somehow, gets the job done:

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Iowa is first in the nation because the Iowa Democratic party had lousy office equipment. The precinct caucuses in Iowa, which get all the attention, are only the first step in selecting delegates that go to the national convention. After the precinct caucuses come the district caucuses and then the state caucus. And in between each, a great deal of information has to be printed up and handed out. In 1972, the Iowa Democratic Party had an old mimeograph machine that worked at a slow and deliberate speed. (If you don't know what a mimeograph machine is either go to Google or ask your grandfather.) "We had to give it enough time to print the material between the precinct and district caucuses," Clif Larson, then chairman of the party, said. "The only way to do that was move up the precinct date to January."

And that is how Iowa became first in the nation.

But Iowa presents a predicament for the candidates. First, it is a caucus, which means there is no secret ballot, voters cannot vote throughout the day, but must gather together at the same time, the candidates must surpass a "threshold" before votes for them count, and certain other reasons that I don't expect any sane person to understand. All this means you need a large and effective organization.

Second, Iowa is a rural state where agriculture and related industries have an enormous impact on the economy. The voters and the local media, therefore, expect the candidates to have a serious farm policy, which means a farm policy that works to the benefit of farmers even if it doesn't always work to the benefit of the rest of the nation. It also means that candidates who have spent time in Congress and have voted in the best interests of their states, but not necessarily in the best interests of farmers, can have a hard time in Iowa.

There is another predicament that candidates have with Iowa: It is in the Midwest. Almost all presidential candidates live in and around Washington, D.C. and getting to Iowa can mean switching planes and can take a number of hours. Getting to New Hampshire, whose primary follows Iowa by eight days, is a lot faster and cheaper. "I can just fly Southwest!" John McCain used to say in 2000.

Even though some candidates (like Al Gore in 1988) did skip Iowa and headed straight to New Hampshire, the 2000 presidential primary race presented an interesting case study in which the main challenger to the front-runner in each party differed on whether to skip Iowa.

On the Republican side, McCain skipped Iowa, practically lived in New Hampshire, and beat his rival, George Bush, there by a stunning 18 percentage points.

On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley campaigned in Iowa, got slaughtered by Gore by 28 percentage points. Bradley then limped into New Hampshire where he narrowly lost to Gore by 4 percentage points.

If Bradley had not wasted time and resources in Iowa, could he have beaten Gore in New Hampshire and turned the Democratic race into a real contest?

Nobody knows, but over the weekend both Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman announced they were skipping Iowa in order to concentrate on New Hampshire and the contests that follow. They obviously believe the lesson of 2000 was: If you don't have a chance to win Iowa, skip it.

Some politicians in Iowa are understandably upset. They feel insulted and worry that more candidates might skip the state in the future, diminishing Iowa's importance. And they point out that John McCain did not become president in 2000 and so candidates skip the state at their peril.

Iowa had nothing to do with McCain's eventual loss to Bush, however. (South Carolina, now there's another story.) But how about if either Clark or Lieberman manages to win the Democratic nomination? Might Iowans vote against them in the general election out of anger?

Well, maybe, but you've got to play the game you are in: You have to win the nomination before you can win the general election.

Clark and Lieberman are doing the smart thing. They may not get their party's nod. But if they don't, it won't be because they skipped Iowa.

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