Forget the polls. Forget the talking heads. And in three days, you can forget all about Iowa. The quadrennial exercise of pretending the “first-in-the-nation” Iowa caucus determines much of anything beyond weeding also-rans from the field of potential presidential hopefuls ends this Tuesday. But the desire to “get this over yesterday” won’t end Tuesday.
As Iowa fatigue sets deeply into our collective bones, keep in mind Iowa, in the grand scheme of things, hasn’t mean that much historically. Since 1980, the eventual Republican nominee has won the Iowa caucus only twice when there wasn’t an incumbent president running – Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.
The Iowa caucus is even less reliable when it comes to picking eventual presidents. Again, since 1980, when an incumbent president is not in the race, the Iowa caucuses have picked only two eventual presidents – George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. The other nine first prizes have gone to such luminaries as Tom Harkin, Mike Huckabee, Dick Gephardt and two-time winner Bob Dole. That’s 2-for-11, an astoundingly bad 18 percent average.
Traditionally, the New Hampshire primary, set for Jan. 10, has been far more reliable in predicting eventual nominees. Again, not counting incumbents, it has picked the eventual Republican nominee three times in five tries, an average of 60 percent since 1980.
That doesn’t mean the winner of the New Hampshire primary will be the eventual nominee this year. Or that it will determine much of anything. The race in the Granite State has been Mitt Romney’s to lose since the moment he entered the race. True, Jon Huntsman has made New Hampshire his “”line in the sand,” but don’t expect it to do much for him beyond being the launching pad for his farewell speech.
Other than weeding out some of the remaining lower-tier candidates who limp in from Iowa broke and unwilling to accept their lack of support, anything short of a Romney loss should elicit nothing but shrugs from voters.
That takes us to South Carolina on Jan. 21.
If you’re looking for a crystal ball of the Republican nominating process, look to South Carolina.
Since 1980, the Palmetto State has batted 1.000, having voted for all five eventual Republican nominees. Does that mean whoever wins this year will be nominee? Of course not. While plenty of people go five for five, no one bats 1.000 forever. But it does illustrate how the act of picking a presidential nominee is a process, not an event.
As much as the media, the White House and the Republican establishment want a nominee to be determined Tuesday night, it won’t be. Expect to hear all about how important Iowa is if Romney wins. If someone else wins, expect to hear how little Iowa means.
The rush to determine a nominee yesterday is a product of the 24-hour news cycle and its purveyors. It’s also the wish of whoever happens to ahead in the latest polls. Only candidates behind the polls and, of course, the voters themselves have any patience for the process itself. The former is self-interested and relatively unimportant. But the latter group has the keys to the car – and no one can leave the party until the voters are ready.
Those keys aren’t in Iowa or New Hampshire or even South Carolina. And they certainly aren’t in any cable news studio in Washington or New York. They’re wherever the process ends and a clear nominee emerges. It could be anywhere after any of these votes, or it could go all the way to the convention. But it will end. And if it does, that will be when the real fun begins.