One day after being hired by Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-Wisc.) super PAC to advise on social media strategies, Liz Mair has resigned. Her friend Erick Erickson, however, says there’s no way she would’ve resigned, and, “So instead of Walker owning this, he’s passed the ball and made a staffer off herself.” At issue is a pair of tweets Mair sent in January (well before she was hired by Walker) that cast certain Iowa Republicans in a less than favorable light.
After Iowa Rep. Steve King’s certifiably insane Iowa Freedom Summit, Mair tweeted,
In other news, I see Iowa is once again embarrassing itself, and the GOP, this morning. Thanks, guys.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) January 24, 2015
A minute later she followed up with,
The sooner we remove Iowa's frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) January 24, 2015
Mair is more socially liberal than most of her fellow conservatives, so like any reasonable person, she was no doubt alarmed at the verbal feces flying around the Freedom Summit, which featured Sarah Palin having a stroke at the podium for 35 minutes. But more than this, Mair’s second tweet alluding to the Iowa Caucuses is dead-on, especially as they pertain to her own party.
That’s because despite the many bushels of importance placed on Iowa as the first state to caucus or primary in the presidential race, for Republicans the results have been a poor indicator of performance in subsequent contests.
Discounting years in which there was an incumbent Republican president as a candidate (since they run unopposed), the winner of the Iowa Republican Caucuses has gone on to win the party’s nomination just twice in six caucuses. Only once has the winner eventually won the general election. That was George W. Bush in 2000, which means that no non-incumbent Republican has won the Iowa Caucuses and gone on to win the popular vote in the general election. On one occasion, the eventual nominee even placed fourth (John McCain, 2008), and on another placed third (George H.W. Bush, 1988).
Iowa Republican Caucus Winners in years with no incumbent
2012: Rick Santorum (Nominee: Mitt Romney)
2008: Mike Huckabee (Nominee: John McCain)
2000: George W. Bush (Nominee)
1996: Bob Dole (Nominee)
1988: Bob Dole (Nominee: George H.W. Bush)
1980: George H.W. Bush (Nominee: Ronald Reagan)
The last three winners have been devout Christians who wore their faith on their sleeve and made social conservative values integral parts of their campaigns, whereas the previous three were old guard, establishment-type Republicans. Nonetheless, two of those races saw very strong showings from ultraconservative upstart candidates. In the 1988 caucuses Pat Robertson (yes, that Pat Robertson) notched second place and finished six points ahead of eventual winner and president, George H.W. Bush. Then in 1996, far right-winger Pat Buchanan also landed in second before riding the momentum and stunning Dole in New Hampshire. Finally, Santorum managed to beat Romney in 2012 (albeit by a razor-thin margin), even after being drastically outspent there.
Candidates closer to (or even on) the fringe can succeed in states like Iowa because caucus-goers are more likely to be politically engaged given that caucusing involves a significant time commitment. On caucus day, caucus-goers must be physically present at the assigned precinct where they debate the candidates for several hours, as opposed to just showing up to a polling station and simply punching a hole or pulling a lever.
Overall, Iowa Republicans are renowned for their staunch conservatism, which can sometimes yield embarrassing figures like the one showing that nearly half of them think President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. In another poll, 40% of Iowa caucus-goers agree with Huckabee that Beyoncé is “mental poison” (while 38% did say he “went too far”). That poll also indicated that 63% of caucus-goers consider “[m]oral character and personal values” as the most important factor in selecting a presidential candidate, as opposed to the 27% who selected “[e]xperience and stands on the issues.” Hence the Santorum and Huckabee victories. (Among Democrats, 34% chose “[m]oral character and personal values,” and 55% chose “[e]xperience and stands on the issues.”)
It’s therefore not a surprise that ultraconservative candidates are more likely to perform better in the Iowa Caucuses and other caucus states than they do in states with primaries. Consider that in 2012, seven of the 11 states Santorum carried had caucuses; and that in 1996, three of the four states Buchanan carried had caucuses; and that in 1988, all three states Robertson carried had caucuses.
For all intents and purposes, the Iowa Republican Caucuses are becoming a launching pad for religious and Tea Party candidates to project themselves into the thermosphere of national politics. Unfortunately for the winners, the votes cast in their names have usually failed to provide the electoral velocity necessary to escape the perception that they’re fringe candidates whose aspirations are best left in the Hawkeye State.
Many if not most Republicans know this, but Liz Mair is one of the few willing to say it. So while she’s been dismissed from Scott Walker’s super PAC, it might be just a matter of time before she latches on with a candidate who knows enough not to waste time eating corn dogs en route to also-ran status.