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Beware the Iowa surprise

time cover

Yes, funny things can happen here--but they don't necessarily matter

By Jeff Greenfield

January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 11:29 a.m. EST (1629 GMT)

Here's a handy time saver for next week: skip just about all the post-Iowa analysis. If history is any guide, almost all of it will be wrong. For instance, if somebody says "the road to the White House leads through Des Moines," ask him if he's using Amelia Earhart's map. Yes, Jimmy Carter used Iowa in 1976 to show he was a serious contender, but that's about it. More often than not, Iowa fades into insignificance by the time New Hampshire votes. Wait a minute, you say. Wouldn't big Iowa victories provide momentum for front runners George W. Bush and Al Gore in New Hampshire? Let's look at the record.

George Bush shocked Ronald Reagan with a 2-point win in 1980. That prompted Bush to proclaim he had "the Big Mo," and prompted an NBC analyst to suggest that "Ronald Reagan is politically dead." Eight years later, it was future President Bush's turn to be not just defeated but also crushed with a third-place finish. That was the year Pat Robertson dominated headlines with a second-place finish. It was also the year Dick Gephardt won the Democratic contest, while Michael Dukakis finished third. It's possible, of course, that front runners Bush and Gore could both win Iowa and lose New Hampshire, then go on to win their nominations. But if that happens, it will be thanks to South Carolina, Arizona, California or Texas voters--not to what happened in Iowa.

Do you plan to savor the new polls? Spend your time more productively by rearranging your sock drawer. Why? Consider 1984. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times reported that Walter Mondale "now holds the most commanding lead ever recorded this early in a Presidential nomination campaign by a nonincumbent." His nearly 3-1 triumph in Iowa had given him a 57-8 lead in national polls over nearest rival Jesse Jackson. And less than 24 hours later, Gary Hart beat him by 10 points in New Hampshire and turned the contest upside down.

Was that poll an anomaly? Not exactly. Four years earlier, on the eve of the New York primary, the New York Daily News showed Carter with a 55-37 lead over Ted Kennedy. Actual results: Kennedy 59, Carter 41. What happened? Pollster Lou Harris explained that "Kennedy benefited from the light vote."

Were these polls right or wrong? That's largely irrelevant. The real point is, they don't matter. At this stage of a campaign, voters' minds are subject to change without notice. Even in Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates take out residency papers, last-minute changes are commonplace. And national polls measure almost nothing worth thinking about. Most people haven't even begun to contemplate the campaign, and their choices are a thin gruel of name recognition and vague impression.

Now, since history is not necessarily destiny, this year could be different. Maybe a strong Steve Forbes showing in Iowa persuades him to spend millions on TV ads in New Hampshire, weakening Bush. Maybe a big Gore win disheartens Bill Bradley supporters in New Hampshire. The likely result, though, is that Iowa will once again prove to be the Brigadoon of American politics, disappearing into the mists, never to be heard from until the next leap year dawns.


Cover Date: January 24, 2000

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