Three tickets? Super Tuesday offers clues to Iowa caucuses’ relevance

Michael Bloomberg delivers remarks during a campaign rally on Feb. 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

After a month of hand-wringing over the delayed results of the Iowa Caucuses, you may not want to hear this.  But we are still months away from knowing the caucuses’ full impact on the presidential race.

This isn’t about the future of the caucuses or the glitches, errors and snafus that have put that future in doubt.  Rather, it’s more about the fate of the traditional three tickets out of Iowa, the relevance of the first-in-the-nation contest and whether competing here is still the only path to the nomination. We won’t know most of those things for sure until we have the results of the Nov. 3 election.

But Super Tuesday gave us a strong answer to the last part of that question.  Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and winning no states, announced Wednesday he was dropping out of the race.

That’s a heaping teaspoon of sugar into the dark, bitter caucus brew that has had Democrats steaming in Iowa and nationally.  Bloomberg has demonstrated, once again, that skipping the Iowa Caucuses is a sure-fire way to not become president.

Many presidential wannabes have tried.  Remember Jon Huntsman, who repeated the canard during the 2012 campaign that Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents?  Yeah, we don’t remember him, either.  Al Gore tried and failed in 1988.  Wesley Clark avoided Iowa in 2004 and avoided the Democratic nomination as a result.  On the GOP side, ethanol-averse John McCain skipped the state in 2000 and caucus-winner George W. Bush became president. Rudy Giuliani gave Iowa a wide berth 2012.

Bill Clinton became president without competing in Iowa in 1992. But the fact that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin ran for president and other candidates chose not to run against him turned that year into a black hole in the record books.

Bloomberg is only the latest casualty, but he’s a good object lesson about why the experience of campaigning in Iowa may be more valuable to candidates than the delegates won here. His disastrous first debate in Las Vegas is evidence of how ill-prepared he was compared to the candidates who had spent a year answering voters’ and reporters’ questions and honing their messages in Iowa.

Bloomberg, like most of the non-presidents who came before him, apparently thought he could substitute an unlimited budget and some name ID for the sort of grassroots organizing that it takes to win in Iowa and New Hampshire.  If he had secured the nomination without competing here, it would have been a stake to the heart of the caucuses, assuming there’s still a pulse.

The “three tickets” phenomenon — the idea that the top three candidates in Iowa are on the plane toward the nomination and the rest are hitching their way home — has long been a measure of caucus relevance. It has been stretched in the past.  McCain’s nomination in 2008 came after a fourth-place caucus finish.  Pundits pointed to the fact that he nearly tied for third place. And when Democratic caucus-winner Barack Obama beat him in the general, it only bolstered the caucuses’ influence.

This year, Biden’s losses to Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire and Nevada seemed to prove the three tickets rule — until his rebound in South Carolina and his rally on Super Tuesday.  But the huge Democratic field and change in caucus results reporting created the potential for an extra ticket or two. That the caucus winner, Pete Buttigieg, and third-place finisher Elizabeth Warren are out of the race certainly saddened their Iowa supporters but doesn’t necessarily mean the caucuses were irrelevant to the eventual nomination.

Sanders, as an almost-winner of the caucuses two times over, may have some legitimate grievances against Iowa’s process. But the fact is, he practically tied the winner of the Iowa caucuses in 2016 and again in 2020. He was the last competitor standing before Hillary Clinton won the nomination four years ago; he stands to be either the nominee or a close second-place finisher this year. His Iowa ticket has taken him far.

None of that will likely matter much to the Democratic National Committee as it weighs the value of the caucuses against the ire of the national media and clamoring of other states for a turn in the spotlight. Biden’s success in South Carolina after floundering in early contests will underscore the idea that a more racially diverse state should start the nominating process. But assuming the caucuses continue, Bloomberg’s doom should be part of any future candidates’ calculation about whether to compete here.