Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and the remaining slew of GOP hopefuls are crisscrossing the state, campaigning hard to perform well in the Ames straw poll coming up this Saturday. In the last three weeks, Pawlenty has visited dozens of towns, and the former Minnesota governor hopes to have covered 1,500 miles of Iowa territory in the closing weeks before the poll.
But for candidates focused on winning votes, and for voters in other states concerned with results, the focus on Iowa seems puzzling, if not a waste of time.
Some criticize the caucuses over procedure: Only the Republicans cast secret ballots; absentee voting isn't allowed; the entire process takes an absurd amount of time. But Iowa is irrelevant for more important, big-picture reasons.
For both Republicans and Democrats, winning Iowa doesn't mean winning the nomination, or the presidency. Compare Iowa's predictive power to that of the South Carolina GOP primary, or to the role of Ohio in the general election. South Carolina has selected the eventual Republican nominee, and Ohio has selected the presidential winner, in every presidential election year since 1980.
Iowa may be first, but it's never been a perfect bellwether. The caucuses offer candidates a chance to prove they can organize well, but they are not even an accurate gauge of the public opinions of most party members, let alone most Iowa voters.
In 1972, Democrat Edmund Muskie won the Iowa caucuses and went on to win the New Hampshire primary, but lost momentum and returned to the Senate. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won Iowa, the nomination, and the presidency. In 1984, Walter Mondale won both the Iowa Democratic caucuses and his party's nomination but lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election. In 1988, Dick Gephardt won the caucuses but lost the Democratic nomination to Michael Dukakis. In 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin (D) won the Iowa caucuses by a landslide but lost his party's nomination to Iowa's third runner up -- Bill Clinton. In 2008, Iowa lived up to its hype, as then-Sen. Barack Obama won the caucuses and rode that momentum to the White House.
In 1976, the first year Republicans held caucuses in Iowa, then-President Gerald Ford won them and his party's nomination but lost the general election to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, George H.W. Bush won them but lost the GOP nomination to Reagan. In 1988, Bob Dole won the Iowa caucuses but lost the nomination to then-vice-president Bush. In 1996, Dole won Iowa and the nomination but failed to beat Clinton in the general election. George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses and general election in 2000. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won Iowa with 34 percent of the caucus votes but failed to take that momentum too far past the cornfields.
What this means, given Iowa's loose correlation to eventual electoral success, is that candidates have over and over sunk outsized portions of their resources into a state whose momentum can't be guaranteed to launch a nomination-winning bid.