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Skip Iowa: Sound Strategy or Loser Talk?

Lost amid the massive media hubbub that followed the leak of this memo advising Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to skip the Iowa caucuses was a fundamental question: Is it the right strategy?

Let's first revisit the fundamental premise of the memo -- written by Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry. Henry writes: "I believe the 'small state first' approach that we are familiar with, that bases winning nomination on momentum is about to be turned on its' head this year. It used to be protected by party rules and the lack of a national primary day. We no longer have either."

Henry estimates that the potential costs -- $15 million and 70+ days of the candidate's time -- are simply not worth the potential bump that Clinton would receive even if she wins Iowa's caucuses.

There are two competing ideas at play here: One is the purely practical consideration of how a campaign can best allocate their time and resources. The other is a matter of perception -- can the frontrunner for the nomination walk away from the state that has long been the preferred proving ground of presidential nominees?

The perception question is the more intriguing to us so let's take that one first.

There are two recent examples of candidates who have skipped Iowa -- with mixed results. In 2000, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not compete in the state, instead focusing all his time and energy on New Hampshire. It worked to a point. McCain won a convincing victory in New Hampshire over then Texas Gov. George W. Bush but was unable to build momentum heading into South Carolina and beyond. Four years later, retired Gen. Wesley Clark entered the Democratic presidential race to much hullabaloo, but his decision to skip Iowa proved fatal to a campaign that never really got off the ground. As Jamal Simmons, a former Clark strategist not currently affiliated with any 2008 candidate, put it when asked about the soundness of a skip Iowa strategy for Clinton: "I've got a memo from the Wesley Clark 2004 campaign I could send them."

The key difference between McCain/Clark and Clinton is that she is widely seen as the frontrunner for the nomination. Say what you will about the political phenomenon that is Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or the Iowa strength of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the reality is that Clinton began the race as the frontrunner and in all likelihood will enter the Iowa caucuses in that same position.

Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic operative not affiliated with any of the campaigns in this election, said that given Clinton's pole position, she can't afford to run the risks associated with skipping Iowa. "Given the role free press and online fundraising plays in the context of a frontloaded primary it is very, very difficult not to play in Iowa if you are the frontrunner," Lehane said. "The bottom line is that in this day and age you cannot afford to pass up on the millions of gross ratings points and online cash that you get from either winning or exceeding expectations in Iowa."

Lehane's sentiment was widely echoed by neutral operatives, including those on the Republican side. Jon Lerner, a pollster and media consultant not tied to any of the GOP campaigns, asked: "What's her rationale for skipping Iowa? If it's just that she doesn't think she can win, that opens so many questions about why she can't win." Lerner's advice for Clinton? Dampen expectations at all costs. "She should point out Edwards' lead there all the time so that if she wins it's seen as a come-from-behind win, and if she comes close she exceeds expectations," he said.

So, on the question of perception, our informal panel of unaffiliated strategists believes it is a no-brainer for Clinton to fight like hell to win Iowa. But, on the practical political level the question of spending weeks of time and tens of millions of dollars on a state that provides relatively few delegates while a treasure trove of delegates awaits on Super Tuesday Feb. 5 is a far trickier one.

If the Clinton campaign goes for broke (literally) in Iowa, it could face serious financial complications heading into Feb. 5, according to Henry's memo. "After the first four states (not including Florida) our campaign will only have $5 - 10M to compete in the 25 February 5th states," he writes.

Erik Smith, who was intimately involved in former Rep. Dick Gephardt's (D-Mo.) 2004 presidential bid, said the fact that the Clinton campaign is even contemplating skipping Iowa shows the vast impact the frontloaded calendar is having on financial decisions.

"If the Clinton campaign, which has enjoyed great success in fundraising compared to the rest of the field, is having this type of internal discussions every other campaign is certainly grappling with the new financial challenges facing campaigns struggling to be viable," said Smith.

In other words if Clinton -- she of the $35 million on hand at the end of March -- is worried about running out of money, what the heck must Sens. Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) as well as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) be thinking? All three men are hoping to break into the top tier with strong showings in early states. But, can they take advantage of the bump provided by a strong early state showing if they can't fund early vote and absentee ballot programs in early states. (Shailagh Murray and I wrote about the impact early voting will have on the spending decisions by a campaign in the Sunday Fix.)

Smith suggested that the unintended consequence of the prohibitive cost of the frontloaded system could be to actually extend the nomination fight as each candidate picks off a state or states where he (or she) runs strongest to keep themselves in the delegate game. "If every campaign must pick and choose which contests to participate in between now and next February, one could argue a scenario in which frontrunners avoid head-to-head contests with each other and slowly accumulate delegates in a handful of states into the spring."

While The Fix would LOVE an old-fashioned delegate fight and -- perish the thought -- a convention fight, it seems unlikely from where we sit. Perception tends to matter more than practical concerns in politics. And the perception remains that Iowa and New Hampshire still matter more than any other states. There is a reason that 13 of the last 14 major party nominees have won Iowa, New Hampshire or both. (Only President Bill Clinton bucked that trend.)

The reality is that while Iowa provides a decidedly small number of delegates, it still carries outsize power in the nominating fight. No matter how much you plan a path to victory that doesn't include Iowa, it's impossible to properly account for the bump factor the candidate who wins the state (or exceeds expectations) will receive.

Put simply: The frontrunner plays everywhere or they run the risk of not being the frontrunner for long.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 29, 2007; 3:40 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Story Conference: The Book(s) on Hillary

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