Huntsman is right. Skipping states in this political-media world is simply unworkable. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision in 2008 not only to skip Iowa but also, inexplicably, to take a pass on New Hampshire ensured that by the time the race got to Florida -- his "must win" state -- he was already irrelevant. Ditto Huntsman in 2012. He couldn't capture enough media attention outside of Iowa to make his chances in New Hampshire anything but slim.
And yet, as this past weekend's 2016 cattle call hosted by conservative Rep. Steve King showed, winning Iowa -- or even running well there -- may require candidates to take positions that are, at best, problematic for them if they wind up being the party's nominee. Here's how NBC's "First Read" described that issue: "A substantial number of potential Republican presidential candidates paid political homage to one of the most hostile voices to undocumented immigrants in the country: Steve King. . . . It's significant these folks all showed up at King's confab."
There's little doubt that -- more so than in New Hampshire or even South Carolina -- the Iowa caucuses have come to be dominated by the most conservative of voters. Almost 6 in 10 2012 caucus-goers identified themselves as "born-again/evangelical" while 2 in 3 (64 percent) said they supported the tea party movement and nearly half (47 percent) described themselves as "very conservative," according to entrance polling.
Recent winners in Iowa have reflected those political proclivities. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who ran as an unapologetic social conservative in 2008, won the caucuses going away in 2008. Four years later, social conservative former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania beat Mitt Romney narrowly, despite the fact that the former Massachusetts governor drastically outspent him. (Worth noting: Neither Huckabee nor Santorum won the nomination or, really, seriously competed for it -- raising questions about Iowa's reputation for picking presidents.)
The message is clear: If you want to win (or surprise) in Iowa, the way to do so is to run as far to the ideological right as you can. Anything short of that and you run the risk of either never escaping Iowa in winter or watching your momentum slowed heading into New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.
For the likes of Huckabee, Santorum, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the decision about Iowa is easy. For the first three, their plans to appeal to social conservatives dovetails nicely with the Iowa caucus electorate. For Paul, whose father placed third in Iowa in 2012, there's a clear following for him among the libertarian wing of the party in Iowa. And Walker, whose speech at the King forum was widely praised, has a social conservative appeal and the benefits of geography.
But, for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Romney (if he runs), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the only one of the quartet who was at King's confab over the weekend, the choice is far more difficult. Skipping Iowa seems out of the question given recent history. But running in a deep field with an electorate that quite clearly favors pure conservatism is also larded with risk.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, clearly concerned about the possibility that the caucuses might turn into a social conservative cul-de-sac, emphasized over the weekend -- a la Huntsman -- that winning isn't the key, coming in the top three is. "We have an old saying that you don’t necessarily have to win Iowa, but it would be nice to come in the top three. There’s essentially three tickets out of here to New Hampshire," which hosts the next primary election, Branstad said.
Maybe. But even that "top three" conventional wisdom has been tested of late. In 2008, the top-three finishers were Huckabee, Romney and former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.). Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the eventual nominee, placed fourth. In 2012, Santorum, Romney and Ron Paul comprised the top three. Yes, Romney went on to win the GOP nomination but the cost to him in Iowa -- both in terms of dollars spent and conservative positions staked out -- might not have ultimately been worth it.
What's Bush or Romney (or even Christie) to do? For establishment Republicans, Iowa is increasingly looking like a no-win situation.