Iowa’s ‘Winnowing’ Role on the Line in Republican Caucuses

If Trump wins, it may threaten the state’s coveted status as the first test in the nominating process.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Clinton, Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Jan. 31, 2016, 8 p.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa—Mer­ri­am-Web­ster defines the verb “win­now” this way: “To re­move (people or things that are less im­port­ant, de­sir­able, etc.) from a lar­ger group or list.”

If Don­ald Trump winds up win­ning the Iowa caucuses Monday night, that pre­cise defin­i­tion is prob­ably something that Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans who care about their role at the head of the pres­id­en­tial-nom­in­at­ing pro­cess hope the rest of the coun­try will over­look.

Oth­er­wise, they will have to ex­plain how a pop-cul­ture en­ter­tain­er with a seem­ingly tenu­ous grasp on world af­fairs, the func­tion­ing of the eco­nomy, and in­ter­na­tion­al trade has nev­er­the­less won their first-in-the-na­tion con­test with policy pro­nounce­ments that barely go bey­ond his cam­paign theme to “make Amer­ica great again.”

While tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans around the coun­try might have the lux­ury of not un­der­stand­ing Trump’s ap­peal, it is, in the­ory, the job of Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans to as­sess his qual­i­fic­a­tions and policies. And should Trump par­lay his polling lead in­to ac­tu­al votes, it will once again call at­ten­tion to Iowa’s un­even per­form­ance in that role.

Un­like the cen­tury-old New Hamp­shire primary, the Iowa caucuses be­came a fix­ture in the pres­id­en­tial race re­l­at­ively re­cently, after Geor­gia Gov. Jimmy Carter rode a strong show­ing here to the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion in 1976. But while Iowa has fre­quently pres­aged nom­in­a­tion wins for its Demo­crat­ic caucus win­ners—Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008 are just the latest—its track re­cord choos­ing the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee has been dis­mal.

Even in 1980, the first time that the Re­pub­lic­an caucuses were act­ively con­tested, win­ner George H.W. Bush was un­able to main­tain “the big mo” in­to New Hamp­shire, los­ing there to Ron­ald Re­agan, who went on to win the nom­in­a­tion. In 1988, as the sit­ting vice pres­id­ent, Bush came in third in Iowa, be­hind Sen. Bob Dole and tel­ev­an­gel­ist Pat Robertson, be­fore win­ning the nom­in­a­tion. In fact, only twice in the past 36 years has the Iowa win­ner gone on to head the GOP tick­et.

Be­cause of these res­ults, con­sult­ants, elec­ted of­fi­cials, and even voters who de­fend Iowa’s place in the pres­id­en­tial-nom­in­at­ing pro­cess use the word win­now­ing to de­scribe the state’s role.

“We take it ser­i­ously. I’d really hate to see it go away,” said Meg Cour­ter, a West Des Moines re­tir­ee. “It’s part of the win­now­ing pro­cess. We do this bet­ter than any­one else.”

In real­ity, though, any “win­now­ing” that hap­pens fol­low­ing a primary con­test oc­curs not be­cause can­did­ates do poorly in the vot­ing, but be­cause they run out of money. (Sen. John Mc­Cain, for ex­ample, fin­ished fifth in Iowa in 2000 after not really cam­paign­ing there. But after win­ning in New Hamp­shire later, he was able to raise enough money to stay in the race against George W. Bush through sev­er­al more primar­ies.)

And in that con­text, Iowa de­fend­ers have ar­gued over the years that the state’s voters get an hon­est sense of a can­did­ate away from the stage­craft and me­dia glare of a mod­ern cam­paign. And in get­ting the true meas­ure of a per­son, the ar­gu­ment goes, their as­sess­ment is more mean­ing­ful than those who only see can­did­ates at large ral­lies or on TV. Iow­ans’ judg­ment is to be trus­ted be­cause the can­did­ates come to big cit­ies and small towns and every­where in between and look caucus-go­ers in the eye as they ex­plain why they’re best suited for the job.

Yet if Trump man­ages to win Iowa any­way with large ral­lies and on TV—without hav­ing vis­ited voters’ liv­ing rooms, Amer­ic­an Le­gion halls, and oth­er small ven­ues—then why should Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to give Iowa any spe­cial re­gard? Or even per­mit it to al­ways go first, for that mat­ter?

The ques­tions are already troub­ling Iow­ans who care about the state’s spe­cial status.

“Trump is such an an­om­aly com­pared to what Iowa is used to,” said former Iowa GOP chair­man Matt Strawn. “If it’s a na­tion­al phe­nomen­on, it would be un­fair to point the fin­ger at Iowa.”

And that ap­pears to be the con­sensus re­sponse to the pos­sib­il­ity of a Trump win: that he rep­res­ents a con­flu­ence of na­tion­al celebrity, deep pock­ets, and brash­ness, un­likely to re­peat it­self any­time soon. Be­sides, if Iow­ans wind up giv­ing him a vic­tory, they have only done what any oth­er state would have done, ac­cord­ing to na­tion­al polling.

“There are way too many people who pay far too much at­ten­tion to real­ity TV,” Cour­ter said. “But would it be any dif­fer­ent any­where else?”

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