Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.
Ever since Michele Bachmann announced her intention to form a presidential exploratory committee, pundits, including Ed Kilgore at TNR, have been making the case that she has a good chance at winning Iowa — or if not winning, then doing well enough to hurt one or more of the stronger candidates. Republican caucus-goers in the state, they argue, are at least half-nuts, and therefore may well support Bachmann or some other candidate who doesn't pass conventional standards of seriousness.
Certainly, Iowa Republicans are very socially conservative, more so than in some other states. But a closer look at Iowa caucus history shows that their history of supporting fringe candidates is not quite what it's made out to be.
The case that "wacky Iowans will do anything" essentially comes down to interpreting a handful of episodes from recent decades. The first occurred in 1988 when Pat Robertson stunned everyone by finishing second with 25 percent of the vote, besting George H.W. Bush and Jack Kemp. But Pat Robertson was a social conservative — and no ordinary one at that — in a year in which the frontrunner (George H.W. Bush) was not. Moreover, that example is now over two decades old, and since then Iowa Republicans have had no trouble voting for mainstream candidates with conventional credentials, as long as those candidates — Lamar Alexander, George W. Bush — had solid records on social conservative issues.
That leaves us with three other supposed episodes of Iowan craziness: Pat Buchanan's second place finish in 1996; the surprising showings of fringe candidates Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer in 2000; and Huckabee's victory in 2008. Closer inspection of each of these episodes, however, reveals that none were quite as crazy as they appear.
Take Pat Buchannan in 1996. As odd as it might seem now, he was almost a serious candidate at the time: He had already run for president in 1992, and while he was never quite a plausible nominee, he did have some serious claim as a repeat candidate that Bachmann doesn't have now. Nor was Buchannan's success in Iowa especially unique. In fact, he proceeded to win the primary in New Hampshire, and wound up beating his Iowa percentage in sixteen states (several of those, to be sure, were after other candidates had dropped out, so the higher percentage was less impressive).
As for Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer in 2000, they certainly were fringe candidates — even more so than Bachmann — and their combined 25 percent was both impressive and anomalous; they combined for only 7 percent in New Hampshire, although Keyes did have some stronger showings in late states after the nomination was decided. However, it's also the case that they didn't have a whole lot of competition. John McCain campaigned in Iowa in 2000, but he did not fully commit to the state, and the only other candidate they beat was Orrin Hatch, who hardly ran any campaign at all. And even with their totals combined, Keyes and Bauer finished well back of Steve Forbes for second, and even further behind winner George W. Bush.
Finally, there's Huckabee's surprise victory in 2008; but the extent to which his candidacy was in any way similar to Bachmann's has been vastly overstated. Yes, he won with the support of social issues voters. But Huckabee wasn't some backbench member of the House; he was a recent former governor, and, in that sense, just as legitimate a candidate as Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
Compared to Huckabee, Michele Bachmann is an altogether different sort of candidate. Since 1972, no candidate in any way similar has run a competitive campaign. The only three members of the House who had plausible shots at winning — Mo Udall in 1976, Jack Kemp in 1988, and Dick Gephardt in 1988 and 2004 — were all senior members with leadership positions, legislative accomplishments, or both. No, Bachmann belongs in a different category, with other sideshow acts who may attract attention but have no real chance to win the nomination. And even in allegedly crazy Iowa, those candidates rarely impress on caucus day.