Staff Columnist

Iowa political parties have peculiar history with 'uncontested' presidential caucuses

Credit to Iowa GOP for committing to count the votes in 2020

Coverage of the uncontested 1996 Democratic caucuses is shown in the Feb. 13, 1996 edition of The Gazette. Some activists were angry that party leaders did not report the number of
Coverage of the uncontested 1996 Democratic caucuses is shown in the Feb. 13, 1996 edition of The Gazette. Some activists were angry that party leaders did not report the number of "uncommitted" voters.

Iowa Republicans will have the opportunity to say “yea” or “nay” as President Donald Trump seeks the Republican presidential nomination in 2020.

Republican Party of Iowa organizers plan to host a preference poll at next year’s precinct caucuses, and report results the same night. That has not always been the case — both Republicans and Democrats have sometimes shied away from sanctioning fair and open caucuses, reluctant to legitimize pesky challengers to incumbent presidents.

Last week, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld formalized his campaign to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination. Weld is one of 84 candidates who have officially filed to run for president as Republicans in 2020 so far. Eight candidates have raised at least $1,000.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich is the only other nationally recognized Republican who has publicly explored running for president, reaching out to New Hampshire voters. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan acknowledges he has been encouraged by others to run, and some Iowa Republicans received questionnaires earlier this year testing possible Hogan campaign messages.

It is hard to articulate exactly what a “serious” or “viable” primary challenge is. There is no doubt Trump is heavily favored to win, likely in overwhelming fashion.

But as conservatives, we believe in light-touch regulation, competition and free choice. There is simply no reason not to count the votes, and I applaud Iowa GOP officials for committing to it.

At times, party leaders have been openly hostile toward Republicans who would dare question our dear leader.

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In 2017, Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann lashed out against U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse during a Trump event in Cedar Rapids. Sasse has criticized Trump from the right, but has made no serious efforts to organize a primary challenge.

“We love Donald Trump. And if you don’t love him, I suggest you stay on your side of the Missouri River,” Kaufmann said, according to multiple reporters at the event.

A few months later, Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler defended such tactics during an interview on the “Iowa Press” television program.

“Quite frankly, if Iowa wants to retain our first-in-the-nation caucus status we can’t have people wandering off and supporting all these other fringe candidates,” Scheffler said on Iowa Public Television.

And just last week, in confirming the party plans to entertain a preference poll at the 2020 caucuses, a party spokesman subtly dismissed the prospect of a Trump challenger.

“Potential challengers should know that Iowa is the heart of Trump country, and Republicans in Iowa are proud of what President Donald Trump has accomplished — keeping his promises to revitalize our economy, strengthen our military, and secure our borders,” said Aaron Britt, deputy communications director for the state party.

Party elites are infamously allergic to the notion of primary challenges.

In 1992, Republican George H.W. Bush drew a formidable challenge from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who was still called Patrick back then. Buchanan did not campaign in Iowa, but one supporter opened an office in the state.

In cowardice, Iowa Republican Party officials refused to entertain a vote for the presidential nomination. They said, according to a Gazette report days before the caucuses, no straw poll would be necessary “because no significant opposition is expected.”

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In fact, Buchanan would go on to win nearly a quarter of primary votes nationally. The New York Times reported party leaders were “fearful” that a vote would “embarrass” Bush. As you can see, Bush loyalists were not exactly projecting a position of strength.

Likewise in 2004, the Iowa Republican Party declined to count votes or report results.

Stifling dissent is not a uniquely Republican project, however. Iowa Democrats employed the same shenanigans in the 1996 election cycle.

Bill Clinton was a relatively popular president who would go on to win a decisive electoral college victory in 1992. While Clinton did not have any memorable challengers for the nomination, supporters of leftist activist Ralph Nader were organizing an independent campaign.

“Clinton sweeps with 100 percent backing,” read The Gazette’s story the next day, tucked away on Page 6A, understandable treatment for a basically uncontested race. The paper reported, based on information from the Iowa Democratic Party, Clinton collected all of the state’s delegates.

But not everyone at the caucuses that year supported Clinton, and some progressives in Johnson County were angry at state-level officials for not reporting the detailed results on caucus night.

Some years later, the real results from the Johnson County caucuses were uncovered, and the county auditor’s website was updated to reflect them — 254 county convention delegates for Clinton, three for “uncommitted” and two for Nader.

By 2012, Democratic leaders wised up and offered results on caucus night. Some anti-war activists and environmentalists detracted, but the incumbent overwhelmingly won — 98.5 percent for Barack Obama, 1.5 percent “uncommitted.”

You can be sure party leaders are aware of recent electoral history. They know modern presidents who faced serious challenges — Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford — lost re-election.

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Unfortunately, some strategists seem to have the causation backward. The primary challenges don’t lead to general election losses; rather, presidents destined to lose re-election draw serious challengers.

It remains to be seen how serious Trump’s primary challenges are. The only way to measure it is to count the votes.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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