Column: Iowa’s caucus isn’t worth losing sleep over

The real race is for second place, with nobody seemingly able to derail Donald Trump’s path to the Republican nomination.
A sign that reads Vote Here outside of a polling location
Photo by Caitlin Andrews.

The voting in the Republican presidential nominating process starts Jan. 15 with the Iowa caucuses.

Exciting, right? No — overrated. Who cares? Don’t wait up for the results.

Why? For two reasons. First, the Iowa caucuses are generally overrated — and I hate to offend my friends in New Hampshire, but so is the New Hampshire primary.  

In recent years, non-incumbent winners of the Iowa Republican caucuses have been Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (in 2008), Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (in 2012), and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (in 2016). Hardly a path to their nominations.

The last non-incumbent to win the GOP Iowa caucuses and go on to become the nominee (and president) was George W. Bush in 2000.

The Iowa caucuses have raised visibility or given credibility to some candidates, including Donald Trump, who finished second in 2016, but have not been a direct path to the nomination.

The second reason to tamp down excitement in Iowa is the fight is for second place between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the former South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley.

The caucus winner has already been determined. One can see the fight is for second by viewing the ads Haley and DeSantis are running; they are aimed at each other, not at the 500-pound gorilla in the race, Donald Trump.

Polling in Iowa is notoriously difficult because the turnout in caucuses is so difficult to predict. But the best polls in the state, by the Des Moines Register, show DeSantis and Haley within a few points of each other, but 30 points behind Trump. The winner of the 

DeSantis-Haley race for second will undoubtedly get a slight boost, but that’s meaningful only if it affects the New Hampshire results.

And how does the New Hampshire primary, just a week after Iowa, look? The composite FiveThirtyEight polling averages show that in the last three months Haley has grown a large lead over DeSantis, who has also been overtaken by Chris Christie.  

Perhaps a Haley win over DeSantis could signal the end to his increasingly longshot campaign and give her a boost. Or perhaps a strong Iowa second-place finish could boost DeSantis against Haley.

But neither outcome will matter. Trump has remained virtually steady in New Hampshire at about 45%, 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor.

The apt parallel may well be Bush’s candidacy in 2000. Like Bush, Trump is the best-known candidate, with the most money, most loyal supporters and best organization.  

When DeSantis drops out — and the demise of his candidacy seems inevitable — his followers will not flock to Haley (or Christie); in fact recent Economist/You Gov polls show more than 80% of DeSantis supporters will go to Trump.  

Supporters of the non-Trump candidates fall into two categories. Most would like Trump without the baggage. A few (Christie supporters, who comprise about 10% in most polls, plus at least some, but a minority of Haley supporters) understand that the former president represents a threat to democracy and oppose him on all counts.

But even among Haley supporters, again according to year-end polling by YouGov for the Economist, 60% would turn to Trump were she to drop out. They see her as Trump without the baggage, not as someone who rejects the Trump legacy, and her failures to denounce him and claim she would pardon him were he convicted support their conclusion.

The anti-Trump faction in the GOP needs to come to grips with the fact it is a small minority in the party. The establishment, conservative GOP of the Bushes, Mitt Romney, John Kasich and even Mitch McConnell has been overwhelmed by populist anti-establishment Trump loyalists. Never was this clearer than the loyalty that Speaker of the House candidates, to have a chance, had to show for Trump.

Is there no path to the GOP nomination for any candidate other than Trump? As much as some would like to find it, the realistic answer is that path probably does not exist.  

The only wild cards left are Trump’s criminal trials, particularly on charges on instigating the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, and the Georgia trial on charges he illegally tried to influence the results of the 2020 election.

Trump has been a Teflon candidate against all sorts of charges.  Remember how the Access Hollywood tapes hardly touched his favorability? Convictions on the current charges, even if they happened during the primary season, which is unlikely, might not affect Trump’s popularity. During the appeal process he would turn them into publicity on how he has been treated unfairly.

But maybe some would see the democratic threat in nominating a felon convicted of undermining our system of government. And maybe if Haley finishes second in Iowa, and a closer second in New Hampshire, and if she did better than expected in her home state of South Carolina – the following primary – she could pose a serious threat to Trump.

Maybe . . . If . . . If . . . If . . . Feels a lot like grasping at straws. Accepting the near impossibility of diverting Trump’s path to the nomination is difficult for longtime Republicans who do not see a home in the party Trump has built.

But that is the reality. So do not lose sleep on Iowa caucus night. It is very unlikely that the results will matter as the process moves forward.

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L. Sandy Maisel

L. Sandy Maisel is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government (emeritus) at Colby College, where he taught for fifty years and served as the founding director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including From Obscurity to Oblivion: Running in the Congressional Primary, which chronicles his own unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Maine's first district. He and his wife, Colby professor Patrice Franko, live in Rome, Maine.
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