Memo to the Clinton campaign

To: Mike Henry
From: Mark Mellman
Re: Does the path to the nomination run through Iowa?

Mike, you have succeeded as a great campaign manager by forging new strategies and tactics, so, it makes sense to question the received “Iowa” orthodoxy in charting your boss’s course to the nomination.

While whoever leaked your memo should be shot (metaphorically), you make important points, but ignore others that I think militate against abandoning Iowa, at least for now.

Beyond the cost, in dollars and candidate time, your central thesis is the “collapse” of the “old system … because of the impact of primary elections … being held on February 5th.” “What is the overall relevance of Iowa,” you ask, “given that half the country will be voting on one day and several hundreds of thousands of voters in California, Florida, and Texas
will be voting before the Iowa caucus on January 15?”

Underlying your memo is recognition that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton fares less well in Iowa than elsewhere. As I have noted before, because they do not sample the right universe, the public polls aren’t worth much. That said, since March, only two of nine put her in first place — by just a hair. Three polls had Clinton in third, lagging an average of nearly 10 points behind. Averaging all the polls together, though, she runs just four points back.

While that is weaker than her national standing, it is hardly an insurmountable deficit. Since you don’t cite it, I assume the campaign does not have internal polling suggesting Iowa is unwinnable.

At this point then, I suggest the campaign is better off figuring out how to win Iowa instead of whether to abandon it.
Following an earlier column of mine, you note that 13 of the last 14 major-party nominees won either Iowa, New Hampshire or both.

The significance of Iowa and New Hampshire is neither astrological nor sentimental. Victories there provide winners the two v’s: visibility and viability.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE, you will respond, does not need visibility. True, but losing Iowa, whether by ignoring it outright or coming up short, guarantees that someone else benefits from the attention the press lavishes on the winner.

Moreover, viability questions continue to dog Clinton, albeit for no good reason. That she leads every Republican does not
mean she will win the general election, but it certainly indicates she can win. Nonetheless, the press is consumed with this question. Pulling out of Iowa, or losing it, will unleash a flood of stories questioning her general-election viability, which will hurt in later contests.

That brings us to early voting. You raised it and some have interpreted it (perhaps wrongly) as the centerpiece of your argument. Yes, Californians will be able to vote a week before the caucuses, though early voting in Florida would start the same day as Iowa. But how many people will actually cast ballots before the Iowa results are in? Damn few.

Oregon is one of the few states to keep records on when ballots are received. In 1996, when I did the first all vote-by-mail election there, about 60 percent of ballots were received a week before Election Day. But late-breaking news brought home a lesson. Voting too early may result in missing important events that could influence your decision. The result — fewer people cast their ballots so early. In recent competitive elections, the number returning their ballots a week before Election Day shrank to about 20 percent.

How many Floridians will vote the day that early voting begins? How many Californians will mark ballots three weeks before their primary? Not enough to change history or to diminish Iowa’s importance.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.