December 29, 2011

Jeanne Zaino is a professor of political science and interim dean of the School of Arts and Science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Maybe it was an effort to revive her campaign — or fatigue brought on by her 10-day, 99-county bus tour of Iowa — that prompted Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to say recently that the Hawkeye State has “already shown that the United States is ready for a female president.” In next week’s caucuses, Bachmann clearly hopes to build on her Ames Straw Poll victory. History, however, does not paint a promising picture.

In the early stages of the 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton was the presumptive favorite to be the Democratic nominee. But it was then-Sen. Barack Obama who finished first among Iowa caucus-goers and former senator John Edwards who came in second.

Clinton’s loss could be something of an outlier. First, Iowans are known to look not too kindly on Washington “establishment” candidates. And Clinton was the only major female presidential candidate to have campaigned in Iowa. Among female contenders of note, Pat Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley Braun all quit before the caucuses.

But it isn’t just female presidential candidates who have had trouble winning in Iowa. Iowa is one of only four states that has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate or House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. (The others are Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont.) And unlike Delaware and Vermont, Iowa and Mississippi have never elected a female governor, either.

This is not for lack of options. Roxanne Conlin, Bonnie Campbell, Ann Hutchinson and Joy Corning are among the women who have campaigned unsuccessfully in Iowa for higher office.

Among the common suggestions for why female candidates don’t fare well in Iowa: The state has an elderly, and therefore conservative, population; it is largely rural; residents tend to favor incumbents; and most residents have “traditional values.”

But given the traditional social views commonly ascribed to Iowans, one might reasonably assume that if a woman were able to break the glass ceiling, it would be Bachmann. The congresswoman not only represents neighboring Minnesota, but she also was born in Iowa. According to her recent autobiography, “Core of Conviction: My Story,” the state she called home for the first 13 years of her life had a profound impact on her values. She has been described by Rush Limbaugh as “a strong spokeswoman for unapologetic conservatism.”

Despite this, two of the state’s leading evangelicals, the Rev. Albert Calaway and the Rev. Cary Gordon, recently asked Bachmann to throw in the towel. They both endorsed former senator Rick Santorum, whose poll numbers at the time ranked below Bachmann’s. The pastors’ major argument was not about policy or which of the candidates stands a better chance of beating President Obama; rather, it was that Bachmann would do better as a running mate.

Interestingly, the idea that Bachmann is best cast in a supporting role is in keeping with Iowa’s electoral results: Since the mid-1980s, five women have served as lieutenant governor.

That none of those women has made it to the top of the ticket raises a broader question: Should a state that is so resistant to female candidates continue to have the distinction, and power, of holding the first-in-the-nation caucus?