If Jeb Bush wants to win, he should play chess

Story highlights

  • Dan Pfeiffer: Jeb Bush is faring poorly in the early going in Iowa
  • Pfeiffer says he'd be better off spending his time and money in New Hampshire

Dan Pfeiffer is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and served in the White House in a variety of roles, including communications director. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In 2007, Mike Henry, Hillary Clinton's deputy campaign manager and one of the smarter operatives in the party, wrote a memo urging the campaign to pull out of the Iowa caucuses and focus its limited resources on the contests that came later.

Henry's suggestion, which leaked to The New York Times, was immediately rejected. Hillary went on to come in third in Iowa and lost the nomination because in part because she didn't have the resources or necessary organization to prevail in the later contests.
Dan Pfeiffer
Now I am not in the habit of giving political advice to Republicans, but eight years after Henry's advice to Clinton, I can't help but think that pulling out of next year's Iowa caucuses would be the best thing Jeb Bush could do to win the nomination.
    I can see why the Bush campaign would take this advice with more than a little skepticism.
    However, the Bush campaign and I have the same interest -- we both want him to win the Republican nomination. They want him to win because they want him to be President, and I want him to be the Republican nominee, because Bush is the major Republican candidate not named Trump or Cruz who is most likely to lose to the Democratic nominee.
    The Republicans can maximize their chances of winning next year by making the election about a choice between the future and the past. Hillary Clinton, because of her long time on the national stage and her last name, would be potentially vulnerable to this message from the right candidate. Bush doesn't embody the future; he embodies a very unpleasant and unpopular past.
    The main reason for Bush to pull out of Iowa is that he is going to lose, and may lose badly.
    According to the Realclearpolitics polling average, Bush is mired in third place in Iowa, trailing Scott Walker by nearly 10 points. Despite having a fairly successful campaign announcement speech that helped his numbers elsewhere, Bush has been stuck in Iowa, which appears to be skeptical of his conservative credentials and resistant to help put another Bush in the White House. This is a bad sign given his family's history of success in the state -- his father won Iowa in 1980 against Ronald Reagan (although he lost in 1988) and his brother won by 10 points in 2000 (George W. Bush was unopposed in 2004).
    Because of their low turnout and the significant time commitment for attendees, caucuses are contests of enthusiasm. This is a problem for Bush for two reasons.
    First, apart from raising millions and millions and millions of dollars, Bush hasn't yet proved himself to be a particularly dynamic candidate. Second, the most enthusiastic supporters tend to also be the most conservative, which is why the last two GOP Iowa caucuses were won by the most conservative candidate in the field -- Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008. And Bush doesn't come close to being the most conservative candidate in this GOP field.
    More generally, the Iowa caucus is a poor predictor of the eventual Republican nominee. In the seven contested Republican contests in Iowa since 1980, the eventual nominee has only won twice. Just ask Presidents Santorum and Huckabee how much they enjoyed winning Iowa.
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    If the odds of winning are long and the benefits of winning are limited, common sense would dictate skipping Iowa and spending time and resources elsewhere. While money may end up being an inexhaustible resource for Bush, time is not.
    During the Obama campaign in 2008, David Plouffe, our campaign manager, used to say, "You can raise more money; but you can never get time back." So every minute of every day that Bush is spending in Iowa is a minute that he can't spend in the contests that will most directly affect his chance to win the nomination.
    New Hampshire is a contest better suited to Bush's profile and much more critical to his candidacy. Losing New Hampshire would be a potentially fatal blow.
    While Bush is wasting time campaigning in Iowa, John Kasich and Chris Christie are in New Hampshire and Marco Rubio is in South Carolina campaigning for the exact voters that Bush needs to win the nomination.
    Now I know Bush is not going to take my word on this one, but he should look at recent history.
    In 2012, Romney bet big on Iowa, spending a lot of money and time in the state, only to lose narrowly to Santorum. As a consequence, he was weaker in the later states, which extended the primary campaign far longer than he wanted, hurting his chances in the general election.
    In fairness to Romney, he almost won in Iowa, but he was much better positioned than Bush is now because he was competing against a far weaker field and had an existing organization from his 2008 run.
    John McCain in 2008 knew that he had little chance of winning in Iowa, so he didn't compete. He planted himself in New Hampshire and campaigned hard there while the rest of the field was fighting over Iowa. He built a base of support that led to a strong victory in New Hampshire, which helped him sew up the nomination pretty quickly.
    The best politicians play chess, but most candidates play checkers. The chess players know you have to be willing to lose a piece or two to win the game.
    Proposing a strategy proposed by a Clinton strategist and adopted by John McCain may not be the best way to win favor with a candidate in today's Republican Party, but if Jeb Bush wants to survive the Trumpnado and become the nominee he needs, he should play a little chess, get out of Iowa and get to New Hampshire as soon as possible.