John McCain did it in 2000. Hillary Clinton thought about doing it in 2008. Jeb Bush should do it in 2016.
The "it" here is skipping the Iowa presidential caucuses, the quadrennial kickoff of the nomination fight for both parties. And, for Jeb, it makes total sense.
Here's why: He almost certainly can't win in the state. So why try?
Witness a new Quinnipiac University poll in Iowa released Wednesday morning. In it, Bush takes a measly 5 percent of the Iowa vote -- good (bad?) for seventh place behind people like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio but also Ben Carson. The problems for Bush in Iowa go far deeper than those topline numbers, too. Among self-identified tea partiers, Bush takes a miserable 3 percent of the vote; he gets 4 percent among "very" conservative voters. Those two groups tend to be the two most reliable -- and, therefore, most powerful-- voting blocs in a Republican caucus fight in Iowa.
And there's little reason in the poll to believe that Bush can make up ground. He's among the best-known candidates in Iowa at the moment, with just 15 percent of respondents in the Q poll saying they don't know enough about him to offer an opinion. Compare those numbers to, say, Carson, who sits at 38 percent of voters who don't know enough about him to offer an opinion. Carson has room to grow in Iowa; Jeb doesn't.
If you start from the premise that Jeb just isn't going to win Iowa, it's not hard to justify skipping the state entirely.
Sure, Iowa was once considered the state where presidential aspirations were made and broken. But can it really be described that way after the last two elections? Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa caucuses going away and parlayed that into ... a distant third-place finish (he got 11 percent!) in the New Hampshire primary five days later. In 2012, the results in Iowa were so close that no one knew who won the caucuses for weeks. Eventually it was determined that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had won. But it never helped him much.
Less important even than how Huckabee and Santorum won Iowa is why they won Iowa. They won because they became the top choice of social conservatives who have come to increasingly dominate the caucuses over the past decade. In 2012, Iowa entrance polling showed that almost six in ten caucus-goers (57 percent) identified as "born again/evangelical." If the electorate in 2016 is even close to that heavily evangelical, Bush just isn't going to win.
But what about Rudy Giuliani, you say! Giuliani skipped Iowa in 2008 and was irrelevant in the nomination fight before he ever had a chance to be relevant. Sure, sort of. Giuliani's error in that campaign wasn't skipping Iowa, which he was right to do for all the reasons I outlined that Bush should, but his totally bizarre and inexplicable decision to pull out of a very winnable New Hampshire primary to stake his claim to the nomination in Florida. You can't wait until the fourth voting state to win (or even be competitive.) You can wait until the second state. (And yes, obviously Jeb needs to win New Hampshire if he skips Iowa. But doesn't he have to win New Hampshire regardless of what happens in Iowa?)
Then there is the reality that in a field of 20-ish candidates, at least half of whom will have an active and aggressive super PAC supporting them, every candidate will need to pick their spots more in this election than in any previous nomination fight. What you are likely to see is candidates and their aligned super PACs picking the early state (or states) that look most friendly to them and going all-out to win, place or show there while paying far less attention to other early-voting states where they have less of a chance. We saw some of this in 2012 when Newt Gingrich and his super PAC targeted South Carolina almost exclusively -- and he won the state.
What that new normal means is that momentum is far less important than it's ever been before. With the likelihood of an extended primary fight -- thanks to the size of the field and the existence of so many candidate-focused super PACs -- the nomination fight will likely be a series of disconnected state skirmishes rather than a single process on which each state's vote is dependent on the votes that came before it.
The argument against Jeb skipping Iowa is two-fold: 1) He's the nominal frontrunner and frontrunners can't skip any states (that was why Hillary didn't ultimately skip Iowa in 2008) and 2) his campaign manager-in-waiting, Dave Kochel, is an Iowa strategist and just won't let the campaign take a pass on the Hawkeye State.
On point 1: That's an old way of thinking about the nomination. First, aside from fundraising, by what measure is Jeb the frontrunner? And second: Does your average voter in ANY of these early states really think about what it means that Jeb isn't competing in Iowa? That feels like the sort of process-y stuff that consultants and reporters talk about and that isn't even part of the conversation for average voters.
On point 2: Good campaign managers do what it takes -- no matter what it takes -- to put their candidate in the best position to win. If that means skipping your home state, so be it.
Will Jeb actually skip Iowa or even seriously contemplate it? Probably not. But he should.