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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2000 /28 Shevat, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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The results from Des Moinesgrad -- YES, THE WINNERS, Al Gore and George Bush, did very well in the Iowa caucuses. They deserve congratulations. Yes, challengers Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes showed some early foot. Yes, Bill Bradley passed his self-declared low-ball threshold of 31 percent -- which, amusingly enough, is a higher percentage than that gained by any other insurgent Democratic caucus candidate in history. The pollsters, too, get a medal for calling a difficult race just about on the money. But, by my lights, the real winner is the man who didn't show up, Sen. John McCain.

That is poetic justice, because the Iowa contest is one of the more stupid hurdles we place in the path of our presidential hopefuls.

It's not Iowa's non-typicality that bugs me, although it is an almost all-white, no-growth state in a polyglot, growing country. But, truth be told, there are no typical states. My problem with Iowa is summed up by these remarks about the Iowa system: It is "madness," a contest that "distorts the process," a "ridiculous test," and "an arcane procedure that produces crazy results." That quote belongs to candidate Al Gore when he lost the Iowa caucuses, big time, back in 1988.

(Gore got less than 1 percent to winner Richard Gephardt's 31 percent.)

In fact, the Iowa system wouldn't have passed the laugh-test in communist Bulgaria before the end of the Cold War. It would have been giggled at in Stalingrad. Among other things, the Iowa caucuses do not bother to offer a secret ballot, and it takes several hours to cast what is, in effect, a public opinion.

That means that the roughly 10 percent of Iowan voters who actually show up for the caucuses tend to be disproportionately upscale and politically obedient, yielding the functional equivalent of an election with a steep poll tax in a state where big spending and interest group politics rule the roost.

Only John McCain chose not to play this mad, distorted game. Of course, it would have been nice if McCain had chosen not to run because the Iowa caucuses are ridiculous. But he didn't. He was looking for a no-risk, no-cost stealth vote. By not campaigning in Iowa, he could take even a zero vote there and shrug it off. If he got something, he could claim a groundswell. McCain ended up getting about 5 percent of the vote, which is only so-so, given the circumstances.

But McCain did make a shrewd tactical decision. The ability to make such decisions earns a candidate a gold star in Presidency 101. McCain estimates he would have had to spend $2 million and 40 days of campaign time to compete. Even then, he probably would have lost to Bush, who is well-heeled, well-organized, and a very attractive candidate. Moreover, McCain and his strategists understood that the Iowa caucuses are next to a nothingburger. The last three Presidents didn't win in Iowa in the year they were elected.

The Iowa results usually have little if any effect in New Hampshire, a real election that usually has a large turnout (58 percent 1996). In fact, the citizens of New Hampshire often seem to relish the idea of reversing Iowa. While Bush was working Iowa, whose results will be forgotten as soon as the ink dries on Tuesday morning's newspapers, McCain was piling up points in New Hampshire and parachuting into South Carolina. As of now, most polls show McCain beating Bush in New Hampshire, and he has a good chance of holding that lead. A New Hampshire victory by McCain should put him on the covers of all three newsmagazines and make him an instant super-celebrity.

Bush's margin over McCain in South Carolina polls has already shrunk from 60 percent to 20 percent, and it will almost surely end up closer than that.

National polls will likely behave similarly. In short, although Bush is still rated a clear favorite to win the GOP nomination, we may well be in for a long, interesting and generally constructive race.

I'd guess the same will be true on the Democratic side, with a dash of bitters. It will be astonishing if Bill Bradley doesn't finally get tough with Al Gore, who has been manhandling him for months. Bradley-surrogate and supporter Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., began that process in Iowa by telling voters that Gore can't win in the general election in November because he's joined at the hip with the sleaze of the Clinton administration. Bradley should come in close to Gore in New Hampshire, and has a chance to win that primary. Whether he wins or loses in New Hampshire, he will have five full weeks to regroup for the big primaries in New York, California and Ohio, and he'll have enough money to compete in these races. As is the case with Bush, front-runner Gore is still the favorite to win his party's nomination, but the fun is just beginning.

And in November? Perhaps the most important number in Iowa was the stark decrease in the total Democratic turnout, down 40 percent to 50 percent compared with the last contested election. The Republican turnout was about the same as it was before.

Such numbers are usually regarded as a bad omen for the party in decline, even in a Stalingrad-style selection.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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