What straw poll? A lesson for the Tea Party in Republican Iowa

GOP 2012 presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney has decided to pass on the Iowa straw poll this summer, a warm-up event for the election-year Iowa caucuses, which increasingly have become a sort of warm-up event for the real primary campaigns. Romney’s decision is making headlines as a risky move but the fact is non-incumbent winners of the GOP Iowa caucus don’t win the GOP national nomination in any kind of consistent way. And the record of caucus winners is even less a predictor for success in the general election. As Romney knows and as the New York Times suggested Saturday, Iowa is now way too Christian right and Midwest parochial to serve as a barometer for Republican America.

“If Iowa becomes some extraneous right-wing outpost, you have to question whether it is going to be a good place to vet your presidential candidates,” Iowa GOP activist Doug Gross told The New York Times.

But there’s no real “if” about it.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan won the GOP nomination and went on to pummel President Jimmy Carter in the general election. He lost the Iowa Caucus to George H.W. Bush, 30 percent to 32 percent.

In 1988, Vice President Bush won the GOP nomination and went on to defeat MIke Dukakis in the general election. He trailed in the Iowa caucus behind both Bob Dole and television evangelist-Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. Dole pulled down 37 percent of the vote; Robertson won 25 percent; and Bush just 19 percent.

In 1996 and 2000, the Iowa caucus winners won the nomination. Bob Dole beat Pat Buchanan and George W. Bush defeated Steve Forbes.

In 2008, Mike Huckabee led the pack with 34 percent and John McCain, the eventual nominee, came in fourth with just 13 percent of the vote.

So, in the last 36 years– the entire post-Nixon era of modern U.S. election politics– a single non-incumbent Republican candidate, George W. Bush, won the Iowa caucus and then won both the nomination and the general election. Of course, Bush won the general election by way of the Supreme Court. He trailed Al Gore’s tally by more than 540,000 votes. No one looking at this record would bet anything on the GOP winner of the Iowa caucus.

The problem is personified in Christian-right Iowa politico Bob Vander Plaats, the caucus kingmaker. Years out from Election Day, he shepherds presidential hopefuls around the state on event tours where his brand of hard-core social conservative voters meet the candidates. For Vander Plaats Iowans, gay marriage is the number one problem the would-be president would address from the White House– gay marriage and abortion.

Vander Plaats is pure in his politics. He’s unbending and confrontational, and he has lost every election race he has ever run. The Atlantic provides a snapshot in the wake of the most recent Vander Plaats loss:

After roaming the state inveighing against the country’s parlous moral condition, he narrowly lost the Republican [gubernatorial] primary, refused to endorse the victor, [now-Governor] Terry Branstad, and instead returned to the passion that animated his campaign: outrage over the Iowa Supreme Court’s landmark 2009 ruling that legalized gay marriage.

As things stand, far-right Tea Party caucus leader and Christian-right Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is likely to jump into the presidential race soon and she will do well in Iowa. In fact Bachmann, and perhaps the Bachmanns of the Republican party, can only consider making presidential runs because of Iowa, because of the far-right religious nature of the caucuses and the prominence they have been given over the years. If she runs, Bachmann may well defeat Romney there next year. And that would be big, just like Sharron Angle’s victory over Sue Lowden last June in Nevada.

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