In the Iowa caucuses, it’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s how you beat expectations.
This is particularly true for Republicans who represent the establishment wing of the party.
Too much investment in the caucuses can risk a letdown in an electorate that tends to favor social conservatives. Too little investment means forsaking the attention that comes from campaigning in the Hawkeye State and the potential momentum from a strong showing.
While this dilemma will plague all candidates from that wing of the party, it is particularly acute for Jeb Bush.
The former Florida governor hired David Kochel, a top Iowa political operative, as his national campaign manager.
It’s a good hire for the Bush campaign but it also means to some observers that there’s no turning back in a state where establishment candidates have found themselves mired in debates about social issues they had hoped to avoid.
Then there’s the family record.
Both W. and H.W. won in the Iowa Caucuses in the past but as one Republican strategist in the state noted Iowa is not “Jeb’s natural hunting ground.”
GOP caucus-goers tend to be far to Bush’s right on issues like immigration and Common Core and wary of any candidate perceived to be an establishment Republican.
Yet that doesn’t mean Bush, or candidates like Chris Christie or Marco Rubio for that matter, are inherently doomed in Iowa.
Instead they will likely be forced to compete over the segment of caucus-goers inclined to support establishment candidates or “economically driven,” according to Doug Gross, a well-connected Iowa Republican has advised several Republican presidential contenders.
These are the voters not motivated “by social issues or liberty movement issues” who were Mitt Romney’s base in 2012.
But it would be a mistake though to view these electorates as totally isolated and segregated from each other. Embracing one section of the Republican electorate to the determent of another is also full of pitfalls, said Craig Robinson, the former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa and editor-in-chief of The Iowa Republican.
These labels, while imperfect, do serve to make key distinctions and the problem for Bush is that will be far more competition for these voters than there was then.
As Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, pointed out, there are “four potential Romneys” fighting over these voters and mentioned both Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina among the candidates who would compete over this segment of the electorate as well.
The challenge with “four Romneys” is that the lone Romney running in 2012 wasn’t able to even get a quarter of the vote.
But Iowa is not about winning or losing. Romney getting just under 25% of the vote and finishing second was a great success for him in 2012. In contrast, when the former Massachusetts governor got just over 25% of the vote and finished second in 2008, it was a major setback. According to Robinson, the trick to being successful in presidential politics, particularly in Iowa, is “to manage expectations, slowly build momentum and weather the rises and falls that come with it.”
He noted that Romney especially did “exceptionally well with that” in 2012.
The Republican kept a low-key presence in the Hawkeye State, tamping down expectations, until the eve of the caucuses when he almost snatched a surprise victory (Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator—turned temporary Iowa resident, won by under 40 votes in 2012).
Another Iowa-based Republican strategist cited John McCain’s 2008 campaign in Iowa as an example of a successful strategy—even though he lost.
The Arizona senator kept expectations low and didn’t spend too much time in the state, while still having a staff operating under the radar and maintaining a ground game.
The result was that he finished in fourth place, just narrowly behind Fred Thompson and well positioned to win in New Hampshire.
This seems to be the model that Bush will be following in 2016. It’s relatively low-risk in a splintered field, whereas Gross points out “25-30% of the vote will win it and 20% will seal” a top three finish.
The difference though is that the former Florida governor may face increased expectations over his hire of Kochel.
However, at least one Republican strategist tried to push back at the suggestion that Kochel’s hire raised the stakes for Bush in Iowa, noting that the longtime operative was hired in spite of his Iowa experience and the potential expectations it might set.
After all, as national campaign manager, the Bush operative will be based in Miami, not Des Moines.
Gross echoed that point, saying Bush “obviously feels that [Kochel] has abilities that transcend Iowa.”
In the meantime, Bush still hasn’t visited the Hawkeye State.
He’s scheduled to make his first appearance at the Iowa Agricultural Summit in early March.
The question is how much more time and investment he’ll put into the state. As Kochel told the Houston Chronicle 16 years ago, when he was Lamar Alexander’s state director and trying to beat Jeb Bush’s brother, the key to success in Iowa is showing up. “You don’t just show up and wave from the tarmac." The problem is that if you spend too much time away from the tarmac, people might just expect you to win.