You really, really, really, can’t skip Iowa.
Jon Huntsman’s fate was probably sealed the day he accepted an appointment from Kenyan socialist Barack Obama, but if he had a chance at the presidential nomination when he returned from his ambassadorship to China and entered the GOP race, he’s certainly squandered it since then. With the semi-surge (so far at least) of Rick Santorum, Huntsman is now the only candidate who hasn’t managed any kind of movement at all. Partially, that was because of his campaign strategy early on of emphasizing his differences with the crazies (on, say, climate) who dominate the party, rather than emphasizing his conservative credentials. But another part is a fundamental error, one that he apparently still doesn’t see.
As Huntsman would have it, “They pick corn in Iowa. They pick presidents in New Hampshire” (via Goddard). Nice idea; unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. The “skip Iowa” strategy has been tried many times, from Al Gore in 1988 to John McCain in 2000 to Wesley Clark in 2004 to Rudy Giuliani in 2012, and it’s never worked yet.
It’s true that candidates don’t have to win in Iowa. George H.W. Bush in 1988 finished a shocking third there; John McCain in 2008 managed only a fourth-place finish that was spinnable as a tie for third (yes, he did compete there in 2008). But they don’t have to win in New Hampshire either, as George W. Bush in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1992 demonstrated.
The reason Iowa is necessary is that there are two complementary paths to the nomination. One is through winning the support of party actors; that’s why high-visibility endorsements predict the nominee better than pre-Iowa polling does. But as important as that path has been since at least the mid-1980s, the winner of that path still has to translate that resource into actual votes and, therefore, delegates. Where mass electorates are involved, the mass media and their various biases are involved. And those biases, from the way reporters are assigned to what counts as “news” to the norms of covering presidential campaigns, all mean that Iowa gets a lot more attention than New Hampshire. Not to mention that, you know, linear time means that Iowa will influence New Hampshire — sometimes in massive ways — but not the other way around.
All of which adds up to a tiny semi-surge in Iowa becoming a big story for Rick Santorum, while similar movements in New Hampshire really haven’t done the same for Jon Huntsman. The dynamics just don’t work for an Iowa skipper. Had Huntsman parked himself in Iowa, odds are still good that his campaign wouldn’t have taken off, but the odds were very much against surges from Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, and yet the first two of those definitely got theirs, and Santorum still might. Or perhaps Rick Perry will be in third place in the next poll, and then he’ll get a surge. All we know is that Jon Huntsman isn’t going to be the big story coming out of Iowa, and that’s bad news for his campaign.