Among political observers, the conventional wisdom is that "three tickets get punched" in Iowa for White House hopefuls -- the top three finishers in each party's caucuses gain enough momentum and credibility to soldier on. Or, as veteran political reporter David Yepsen of the The Des Moines Register likes to put it, there are three tickets out of Iowa: "first-class, coach, and standby."
But in 2008, with competitive presidential races in both parties vying for the news media's attention, even finishing in the top three in Iowa may not guarantee a candidate a comfortable seat on the post-caucus campaign shuttle to New Hampshire.
"I think there are only two [Republican tickets] that get punched out of Iowa: the winner and the candidate that blows away or exceeds expectations," said veteran GOP strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign but is neutral in the 2008 race.
The notion of three tickets out of Iowa largely came into vogue after the 1988 caucuses, when both third-place finishers -- then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts for the Democrats and Vice President George H.W. Bush for the Republicans -- bounced back to win the New Hampshire primary.
But heading into that year's Iowa caucuses, the Dukakis camp was not claiming to reporters that there was some magic in the number 3. Tad Devine, a top campaign strategist for the 2000 and 2004 Democratic nominees, was working for Dukakis in 1988, overseeing his delegate operation. Devine recalls that he and other Dukakis operatives made the argument to the press corps that their candidate would be "winnowed in" by the Iowa results without projecting where he would place in crossing the finish line.
"I said, 'Well, you'll know it when you see it,' " Devine says, adding that he told reporters "There will be a top tier of candidates who were clearly separated from the rest."
Indeed, Dukakis captured 22 percent of the delegates at stake in the Democratic caucuses, which put him in third place, behind then-Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who won 31 percent, and then-Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who got 27 percent. Although Dukakis's 22 percent was lower than that of any previous Democrat who had gone on to capture the party's presidential nomination, it clearly met the standard that the Dukakis team had cleverly set for itself. The fourth-place finisher in the Democratic caucuses that year was civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson, who garnered just 9 percent of the delegates at stake.
The Dukakis claim to have been "winnowed in" to contention partly worked because his campaign had a plausible rationale for why the Massachusetts governor would be able to translate his showing in Iowa into future primary victories. Dukakis had two critical points in his favor: The next key nominating contest was in his backyard, New Hampshire, and he had already demonstrated an ability to raise money. He was the fundraising leader among the 1988 Democratic contenders.
"You have to [be able to] explain to the serious press how you succeed," Devine said. And after Dukakis validated his campaign's explanation by actually winning New Hampshire, he cruised to the nomination.
Eight years later, finishing third in the Iowa Republican caucuses was of considerably less help to Lamar Alexander. Alexander grabbed third with 18 percent, which was not an insignificant feat for the long-shot candidate. But the dynamics of that nominating contest were wildly scrambled because conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, a bigger underdog than Alexander, finished second with 23 percent, a mere 3 points behind then-Senate Majority Leader Dole of Kansas, who was the prohibitive favorite going into the caucuses.
Buchanan's success captivated the media's attention. And his colorful campaigning in New Hampshire was able to rally the Republican Right. Meanwhile, Alexander struggled to find his footing in the fluid contest, and the Dole campaign adroitly trained its fire on him, realizing that in the end the party was less likely to turn to a controversial radio and television personality than to a former successful two-term governor of Tennessee.
"The message out of Iowa was not how well we did but how well Buchanan did," recalls veteran Granite State Republican presidential campaign strategist Tom Rath, who was advising Alexander at the time. "And we had not settled on who Lamar was" -- meaning that Alexander had not clearly defined himself for the GOP electorate.
Buchanan scored an upset victory in New Hampshire. And Dole beat out Alexander for second by fewer than 8,000 votes. "We didn't have enough groundwork laid [in New Hampshire] and didn't make people feel comfortable enough to finish [Dole] off," Rath says.
Obviously, coming in third doesn't guarantee that a candidate will survive beyond the next round, but failing to make it into Iowa's top three tends to be a portent of doom. Since 1972, when the Iowa caucuses began to play an important role in the race for the White House, only one candidate who finished out of the money there went on to be nominated, and that was a very special situation: In 1992, Bill Clinton finished fourth in the Democratic caucuses with a measly 3 percent. But that year Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was also seeking the Democratic nod. The rest of the Democratic field virtually conceded the caucuses to him, and he quite predictably swept them. The news media and the Democratic political establishment judged the 1992 caucuses to be basically a non-event; Harkin gained no momentum from his victory. He finished fourth in New Hampshire and withdrew from the race shortly thereafter.
Third-place caucus finishers who fared poorly in subsequent presidential primaries include Democrat Howard Dean in 2004, Republican Alan Keyes in 2000, Democrat George McGovern in 1984, Republican Howard Baker in 1980, and Democrat Birch Bayh in 1976. Even some second-place finishers, such as Democrat John Edwards in 2004 and Republican Steve Forbes in 2000, weren't able to convert their relatively strong showings into nationally viable campaigns.
The role of the media in catapulting candidates who beat expectations in Iowa cannot be underestimated. But with both nominations being vigorously contested in 2008, the 1-2-3 candidates coming out of Iowa in both parties can't count on being covered as much as they would like. Instead, post-caucus coverage is likely to be obsessed with just one or two story lines -- Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's stumble or triumph, for example, or whether the GOP's Mitt Romney had his nose bloodied by "expectations."
In 1988, Gephardt's victory in Iowa was a modest upset for the little-known congressman from Missouri. But much of the subsequent media attention that year focused on the Republican race because religious broadcaster Pat Robertson had managed to come in second in the caucuses. "Robertson hurt Gephardt," notes former Dukakis adviser Devine.
It's hard to predict which party's caucus results will captivate the media, but recent events suggest that if Clinton, the Democratic front-runner in national polls, falters in Iowa, she will be the dominant, oxygen-grabbing story. After Clinton had a mediocre debate performance in which she wavered over the issue of granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens, her rivals and the political press corps pummeled her. If someone upsets her in Iowa, that story could overwhelm the sagas of the third-place finishers -- Republican and Democratic alike.
"You all are going to decide the story," GOP strategist Reed said, referring to the role of the media. "And if the story is 'X' and the story is 'Y' and you're not 'X' or 'Y,' you can't get arrested."