The Iowa Caucuses
Jude Wanniski
February 9, 1988


From the vantage point of a Jack Kemp enthusiast, the Iowa caucuses last night were of course a disappointment. In finishing 4th with 11% of the GOP vote, Kemp finds himself in a deep hole, with the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday a do-or-die event for him. Campaigning becomes very expensive after New Hampshire and fundraising will demand that the Kemp candidacy be seen as viable. George Bush's shocking 3rd-place finish behind Pat Robertson was the only good news for Kemp. If the crippled Veep blows his big lead and loses New Hampshire, he'll be seen as a dead duck. If Robertson tumbles to 4th in his first primary state, a case could be made that Kemp could gather strength from the dropout candidates and contest front-runner Bob Dole in the later events, eventually winning over the Robertson delegates at the convention. Kemp's main problem is his media campaign, a clear flop in Iowa. The 12,000 caucus vote he got was practically identified beforehand, from people who had heard Kemp speak and pledged to caucus for him. There was virtually no "walk-in" vote for Kemp, a clear sign of failure of his ad campaign, which focused on criticisms of Bush and Dole. Kemp on the stump is the only positive, upbeat candidate in the field, Dole and Robertson especially seeing the U.S. going to various circles of hell in handbaskets. But his campaign strategists do not believe in positive media messages. The New Hampshire debate this weekend and the last-minute TV ad campaign will be decisive, but we have no idea yet what tack the Kemp campaign will take.

Rep. Richard Gephardt surged to victory on the Democratic side with his message of protectionism, "positive" in the sense that it's the essence of his belief and his agenda for a Gephardt presidency. In the same way, Bob Dole conveyed his unalloyed belief that bitter medicine is necessary to deal with the federal deficits. I thought Gary Hart would challenge Gephardt on trade, but neither he nor anyone else carried a free-trade banner during the campaign homestretch, in either party. It's hard to imagine the campaign proceeding much further without this issue being joined. Perhaps we'll see Michael Dukakis confront Gephardt in the New Hampshire debate. But the assumption that protectionism is a winning issue this year may take deeper root with Gephardt's Iowa vote. The other Democratic contenders may sidestep it.

It's not often that the winners of the Iowa caucuses go on to get their party's nomination. Jimmy Carter was an exception. This isn't to say that Dole and Gephardt can't put Iowa in the bank. They now have to be taken as frontrunners, at least for the next week. But this is a unique experience in American political annals, given the wide open fields in both parties and the recent political reforms. Dole looks very sharp at the moment, Bush very weak, Kemp with an opportunity to make New Hampshire count for him. The thundering herd is still in the backstretch, finally out of the gate. Even small adjustments here can produce major changes in the results.