Analyzing Iowa
Jude Wanniski
August 17, 1999


The lead editorial in Monday's Wall Street Journal made a number of errors in its analysis of the results of Saturday's "straw poll" of Iowa Republicans. The most glaring was its warning to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was the only announced candidate for the GOP nomination to not compete in the festivities in Ames. The WSJ said he should be aware that no candidate who has bypassed Iowa in the actual caucuses -- which will take place early next year -- has ever gone on to win the nomination and presidency. In fact, Ronald Reagan bypassed the Iowa caucuses in 1980 even though he was leading in the national polls. It was the decision of his campaign manager, John Sears, to concede Iowa to George Bush, because Bush was the favorite of the GOP organization and the Iowa caucuses are dominated by the Iowa GOP regulars. By its very nature, the organization is not interested in issues or ideology but in backing the safest bet in the field. Bush had been to Iowa 44 times in the previous two years in preparing for the caucuses and Sears worried that a late campaign through Iowa would not improve Reagan's chances, that he would be defeated by the regulars, and would not then have the excuse that he might have won if he had campaigned.

Bush easily won Iowa and the friends of Reagan immediately decided Sears was an incompetent and had to be fired. With Nancy Reagan, they plotted to fire Sears as soon as the results were tallied in the New Hampshire primary, which followed Iowa by three weeks, and which they believed Bush also would win. Sears bet all of Reagan's chips on New Hampshire, where ordinary people who were interested in breaking loose from the status quo might respond to Reagan's message of economic growth through a 30% tax cut that would replicate the Kennedy tax cuts of 1964. With ten days to go, Reagan trailed Bush by 15 points in the tracking polls. By election day, Sears' strategems had pulled Reagan to even in the polls, even as the plot to fire Sears was unfolding. The plotters were horrified when the exit polls at 10 a.m. showed Reagan might win by more than 10 points and it would be impossible to get rid of Sears. They confronted Reagan at noon and urged him to fire Sears then and there, to avoid the complications. Reagan called in the surprised Sears and cashiered him and his top lieutenants. When the polls closed, Reagan had defeated Bush by 27 percentage points. Imagine if Lincoln had decided to fire General Grant after Cold Harbor, a battle he had lost before he won the rest, and you can imagine what it was like for those of us who had all our chips bet on Sears and his political genius.

So the Iowa "straw poll" has now supposedly determined that the GOP nomination is between George Bush, who won 31% of the vote in the field of nine, and Steve Forbes, who won 21%. Would it surprise you that my old friend Bob Novak told me a week before the "poll" the exact order of the finish, including Gary Bauer finishing fourth and Dan Quayle in the eighth spot? Novak had been advised on the distribution of the $25 tickets sold by the Iowa GOP, which is why all the senior political press seemed to know the order of finish before the ballots were cast. I seldom disagree with Novak on matters political, but I did disagree with him on his assessment that Bush gained by his victory. The Bush spin is that he decided to get into the straw poll only in the last month, which is why it was miraculous that he could amass 31% of the vote against candidates like Lamar Alexander, who practically lived in Iowa these last four years, and dropped out Monday after finishing sixth. In fact, as the organization's candidate, W's 31% finish was the bare minimum needed to save face. The organization candidate has to be able to get the organized vote at a moment's notice, and 31% is the number associated with the hard-core regular. If the tally tells us anything, it is that Bush could not get 1% beyond the regulars.

The political analysts also are chewing on Steve Forbes, who seemed to think he actually might surprise Bush and beat him. This is probably because he thought that everyone to whom he gave a $25 ticket would vote for him. A sizeable bunch of $25 tickets sold were not cast by those who took them, almost certainly on the grounds they were not sure they would do the right thing without closer thought. The idea that Forbes "bought" his way into second place almost certainly is incorrect. Where Bush gives boilerplate speeches, Forbes offers intelligent ideas in a great many areas, and he did spend a great deal of time over the last three years courting Iowans with those ideas. His money simply makes it easier for him to buy message time, but his 21% showing had to have been a disappointment in his camp. The ton of money he spent did not leave any of his backers with the sense that he can win it all. I think he could win the nomination, but only because he has the resources to stay in, hoping Bush will show his vulnerabilities.

The only other candidate who still can win is Quayle, who I think is the best candidate in the field and would make the best President of the lot. Quayle was not going to participate in the straw poll, because he saw it would be divided between the GOP political organization and the Christian political organizations. Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch, none of whom could possibly win, got their votes from true believers -- Bauer finishing fourth with a battlecry to smite the Chinese infidels. Only when Bush decided with a month left to go did Quayle decide he had to enter, like it or not, and take his lumps. Starting from scratch with no organization and no religious warriors, Quayle had to assemble his 4% of the vote one at a time. He is being counted out because of this dismal showing, but is staying in because he believes he would make the best President and the real voters, who have not yet studied the candidates and their offerings, will come around from the bottom up. He's operating on a shoestring, with a tiny staff, but I still can see a path to recovery and victory even if Bush does not stumble. So does Jack Kemp, who technically remains neutral, but who yesterday co-hosted a small fundraiser for Quayle in Vail, where they both have condos.

One Bush weakness on the political chessboard is the Reform Party, which could deny him the win over his Democratic opponent if it picks Pat Buchanan as its candidate. Buchanan knows his influence inside the GOP has waned, but he has leveraged it by openly toying with the idea of the Reform Party. If I am right that only Bush, Forbes or Quayle can win the GOP nomination, Quayle is the only one of the three who also could seek the RP nomination, which would give him two lines against the Democrat. On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley has that option if nominated, but Al Gore does not. Mix these variables into the likelihood that Y2K will be part of the political background going toward the first of the year and for months beyond. Where conventional wisdom practically insists we accept either of the establishment candidates, Bush or Gore, as the next President, I actually think our next President will be one of the anti-establishment candidates -- Forbes, Quayle or Bradley.

What does John Sears think of all this? I called him yesterday and reminded him of his vow to take no interest in this race, but that he must have taken a peek at Iowa. He just laughed at how silly it all was and how meaningless, repeating his dictum that the campaign does not begin in earnest until Labor Day, which is still three weeks off.