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How Important Is Iowa?

Eric Thayer
Getty Images

We have been witnessing a very odd and somewhat surreal battle for the Republican presidential nomination this year, with candidates consistently rising and falling, and no doubt there will be many more surprises to come. There is a recurring theme, however, one which we hear every four years: how important a role should Iowa play?

Forget the national polls; they are completely irrelevant. The name of the game right now is the early contests, starting with Iowa on Jan. 3. A major question for the campaign of Mitt Romney, the presumed frontrunner, is how seriously they need to compete in the caucuses, and what a defeat might mean for him.

Four years ago, Romney went all out in Iowa, winning the 2007 straw poll by a comfortable margin and investing heavily throughout the state. But come caucus night, Romney lost to Mike Huckabee by nearly nine percentage points. John McCain, who deliberately skipped the caucuses (as he did in 2000), came in fourth, behind Fred Thompson. And who went on to win the nomination? McCain.

This of course was not the first time we saw a candidate lose the Iowa caucuses and go on to be crowned the nominee at the national convention. Ronald Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in the 1980 caucuses but went on to win it all. In 1988, that same Bush — by now the vice president — hoped to succeed Reagan but lost to Bob Dole in the caucuses, finishing third in fact. But Bush, like Reagan before him, went on to win both the nomination and the White House after a loss in Iowa.

And it's not just a Republican phenomenon. In 1988, Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa (behind Richard Gephardt and Paul Simon) but won the nomination. And in 1992, favorite son Tom Harkin took Iowa that year but was never heard from again. Bill Clinton, in fact, failed to win Iowa as well as New Hampshire on his successful road to the White House.

Romney may be the Republican frontrunner for 2012, but he is a very precarious frontrunner. Polls continue to show a sizable number of conservatives who say they could never support him. And even as some rivals were facing serious speed bumps on their own road to the nomination, such as Rick Perry and Herman Cain, Romney seemed unable to take advantage; his polling numbers have been static for months.

Romney, who no doubt remembers his Iowa experience from four years ago, is in the final stages of deciding how seriously to compete this time. One would think that with seven weeks to go he doesn't have much time. But this is a different kind of campaign from what we have witnessed in the past, with candidates sparkling and then flaming out at a regular pace. (Remember when Michele Bachmann was the odds-on favorite in Iowa?) The fact that Romney — as well as Cain — can poll so strongly despite having hardly shown up in the state to campaign is a good sign. And a win in Iowa could lead to momentum a week later in New Hampshire.

But a defeat in the caucuses, or a weaker-than-expected finish, could give his campaign fits. Go back to 1996, when Dole won Iowa but only by a hair over Pat Buchanan. In many respects, the "winner" was not Dole but really Buchanan, who used his Iowa Big Mo to take New Hampshire eight days later. Dole, as the history books tell us, ultimately won the nomination. But his relatively weak showing in Iowa and his loss in New Hampshire sent a signal to voters from the outset that he was not going to be a strong candidate in the general election. And he wasn't.

Political Updates.I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, here are some questions in the e-mail bag:

Q: Regarding your Nov. 7 column and the history of dumped vice presidents, Henry Wallace replaced John Nance Garner in 1940 as the VP candidate. I cannot recall if this was at the request of "Cactus Jack," but I seem to remember that Roosevelt wanted to reward the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, knowing that the "solid South" would be with him anyhow. — Former Sen. Jim Broyhill (R-N.C.)

A: There was a major falling out between President Franklin Roosevelt and Vice President Garner during FDR's second term. The two split over a number of issues, notably Roosevelt's plan to "pack" the Supreme Court and his desire to purge the Democratic Party of certain conservatives in the 1938 midterm elections. As 1940 was approaching, it was not clear whether Roosevelt would run for an unprecedented third term, and Garner was clearly making himself available for the nomination. He entered several primaries but, with the situation in Europe worsening and more Americans clamoring for a third term, Garner got walloped by FDR in every one. With Garner clearly no longer the loyal team player, and thus no longer acceptable as VP, Roosevelt pushed the 1940 convention to accept Henry Wallace as his new running mate. Garner's challenge was the last time a vice president took on his boss for the nomination.

Q: In your opinion, what was the biggest surprise in Tuesday's election results? — Scott Rothschild, Topeka, Kansas

A: Actually, there weren't many; certainly none in the handful of gubernatorial and mayoral contests, which resulted for the most part in the status quo. Lots of ink was spilled over the elections in Virginia, where most thought the GOP had a shot at picking up the two state Senate seats needed to give them control, and they did. No more, no less. Democrats were "surprised" that Republicans failed to win more seats. But, Republicans pointed out, the district lines were drawn by Senate Democrats. In the House, where the lines were drawn by Republicans, the GOP picked up seven seats, and now have their largest majority in state history. So, not much of a surprise.

And in Ohio, everyone knew that Question #2 — the limiting of collective bargaining rights for public employees — was going down to defeat, but I guess the margin (61-39%) was larger than most people expected.

Perhaps most surprising was how big a margin the "Personhood" amendment went down in Mississippi, the bill that would equate an embryo with a human being. Both gov. candidates supported that one, as did retiring Gov. Haley Barbour. But it lost convincingly.

And speaking of Mississippi ...

Q: You have said many times that Johnny DuPree was the first African-American candidate for governor [of Mississippi] of a major party. Why do you always include the words "major party?" — Lucy Harris, Chicago, Ill.

A: Because a black candidate has run for governor in the state before, just not as the nominee of a major party. In 1971, Charles Evers — the mayor of Fayette and brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers — ran for governor as an independent. With no Republican running in the general election, Evers got 22% of the vote against Bill Waller, becoming the state's first black gubernatorial candidate. Waller's 77% remains the largest since the GOP became a factor in the state in the 1960s.

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Q: I believe you said this on the air today [Wednesday on TOTN], but could you please explain how the new constitutional amendment here in Ohio (Issue 3) was largely a symbolic win? — J.R. Liston, Circleville, Ohio

A: Issue 3 was the measure where voters, by a resounding 2-1 margin, rejected the individual mandate plank of Obama's health care plan ... and thus voting to "preserve the freedom of Ohioans to choose their health care," according to the bill's language. But no one seems to think it makes much of a difference. In his post-election analysis, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer — no fan of "Obamacare" — wrote that the ballot measure "has no practical effect, federal law being supreme." Here's more from William Hershey of the Dayton Daily News:

As far as the requirement in Obama's federal health care law goes, it was a symbolic victory.

The federal law requires all Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or be fined.

State laws and constitutions can't supersede federal laws, most experts agree, even backers of Issue 3 such as Ohio's Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine.

The U.S. Supreme Court, not Ohio voters, ultimately will decide the fate of the federal health care law, including the individual mandate, these experts say.

It's a decision, one way or the other, that everyone is waiting for. In a sense, everything that happens until then is symbolic.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation.Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on the allegations against Herman Cain, the results of the 2011 off-year elections and a look ahead to 2012 with Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg and Republican consultant Alex Vogel. You can listen to the entire segment right here:

Nov. 9 Junkie segment on TOTN

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Wednesday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt! DON'T FORGET TO CHECK BACK HERE ON WEDNESDAY FOR THE NEW PUZZLE.

Ford's line in 1976 about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was considered the biggest debate gaffe of all time.  Until ...
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Ford's line in 1976 about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was considered the biggest debate gaffe of all time. Until ...

Podcast.There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, " It's All Politics," every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. This one was taped the day after the Rick Perry "oops" debate, is filled with some great historical tape and, frankly, is not one you should miss. You can listen to it here:

Thank you Iowa.Thanks to the folks at Iowa Public Radio for hosting a wonderful event in Des Moines on Nov. 7.

Remembering Hal Bruno. It's Election Night, 1984, and I'm part of the ABC News Political Unit in New York. It's my first real journalism job since my stint as editor of the Lokanda Lantern at Camp Lokanda many years before. And I had been a political junkie since 1066. But this was the real deal. Anyway, there was no suspense in the presidential race that year — Ronald Reagan won 49 out of 50 states against Walter Mondale. But something happened that night that changed my life forever. Hal Bruno, the ABC political director who worked in Washington, was always in the New York studios on election night to share his expertise with and give guidance to Peter Jennings, David Brinkley and the other political correspondents. After the broadcast was over, as we were wrapping up and congratulating each other for a job well done, Hal came over to me and said he wanted me to be his deputy in Washington.

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I'll never forget that moment. It was a dream come true. I wanted the opportunity to come to D.C. more than anything. And in the years I worked for Hal, I learned more about the right ways to cover politics than I ever imagined. He often put me on a plane, off to a caucus or a convention or some political event where I became his (and the network's) eyes and ears as to what was going on. Working for Hal opened up conversations and relationships for me that I never would have had otherwise. Politics has always been politics, but it wasn't as vitriolic as it is today. My relationships with these people, Democrats and Republicans alike, were always solid and genuine because we treated everyone fairly. No focusing on innuendo or rumor or the kind of snarkiness that has come to represent current political coverage. And when you gave your word, you kept it.

Peter Jennings was the first to admit that he had a lot to learn about politics, and he leaned on us quite a bit to tell him what we were hearing in our travels. Sitting election night 1986 and 1988 with Peter and Hal, there to provide analysis and insight, is something I will never forget.

It was also a thrill to see the parade of politicians come through Hal's office, and it was a privilege to be part of the conversations. I always think of that day in early 1987 when a young Southern governor (with rumored national ambitions) and his wife, Bill and Hillary Clinton, came into the office to just chat. Nobody was guarded, nobody was fake. Everything was off the record, and it felt genuine. (And yes, within a few days came a package sent to me filled with old Clinton campaign memorabilia, alongside a lovely note from the governor himself.)

I was already the political editor at NPR by the time of the 1992 elections, when Hal was selected to be the moderator for the vice presidential debate among Dan Quayle, Al Gore and James Stockdale, the running mate to Ross Perot. Hal's innocuous opening line to him — "Admiral Stockdale, your opening statement, please, sir?" — was followed by one of the most oft-quoted lines in debate history, in which Stockdale said, "Who am I? Why am I here?" The debate was perhaps more notable for the childish bickering that Quayle and Gore constantly found themselves in, and despite his best efforts, Hal couldn't get them to behave. Years later, in one of my last conversations with him, Hal rued that he seemingly lost control of the debate.

There was much more to Hal Bruno than his day job at ABC. He spent many a night as a volunteer fireman and became an expert on fire safety. He was a major figure with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which honors those firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty.

And he loved bluegrass music. Often I found myself in his backyard, listening to him and other members of his group, "The Informed Sources," play and sing away. One of the members was the late Henry Trewhitt, who worked for the Baltimore Sun. Trewhitt was also on the 1984 presidential debate panel, where he asked President Reagan the famous question about "age" — which Reagan hit out of the park. But when Hal and Trewhitt and the others were banjo-ing away in the Bruno backyard and basement, politics rarely was discussed.

More than anything, Hal loved his family. His wife Meg was always warm and generous, always knowing that she shared Hal with everyone who wanted a part of him. But his relationship with Meg was a true love affair.

I wish you could have heard the countless tributes that were said at last Friday morning's memorial service. He affected many people and he made a difference. And he died on Election Day, which somehow seems appropriate. R.I.P. Hal. We won't see the likes of you ever again.

( Click here for the New York Times obituary, which included a few of my remarks.)


Nov. 15 —Advocates of recall of Wis. Gov. Scott Walker (R) begin signature petition; must reach 540,000 within 60 days.

Nov. 19 — GOP candidate forum, Des Moines. Also: Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, Des Moines.

Nov. 22 —GOP presidential debate in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (CNN, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 7 — Virginia Senate debate, Univ/VA at Charlottesville.

Dec. 10 — GOP debate, Des Moines (ABC News, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 15 —GOP debate, Sioux City, Iowa (Fox, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 19 —GOP debate, Johnston, Iowa (PBS/Des Moines Register, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 28 —Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Des Moines.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at

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******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: Nancy Pelosi becomes the first woman in history to lead a political party in Congress, as House Democrats elect her minority leader. She easily defeats Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) 177-29. Pelosi, from San Francisco, succeeds Rep. Richard Gephardt, who relinquishes his job to focus on his 2004 presidential ambitions. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) succeeds Pelosi as minority whip. There are no contests on the Republican side, as Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is renominated as speaker, Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) moves up from majority whip to majority leader (replacing the retiring Dick Armey, also of Texas), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a DeLay ally, becomes whip (Nov. 14, 2002).

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