Democrats may play chess, but the 2016 Republican race is more like college football

Bush IA
Photo by Dave Davidson –

“The wise man is one who knows what he does not know,” Lao Tzu

It took me a while to figure that out for myself. In fact, after spending ten days in South Carolina before the 2012 presidential primary, I realized that I’m clueless when it comes to politics in that state. I also never pretend to understand the thinking of my Democrat friends.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Obama, penned an op-ed that CNN published on Tuesday. The article was titled, “If Jeb wants to win, he should play chess.” It could have also been titled, “Jeb should skip Iowa and focus on winning New Hampshire.”

The article essentially states that Bush should heed the advice that Clinton’s staff gave her in 2008 – abandon Iowa and focus on winning in New Hampshire. The notion that Bush should skip Iowa isn’t exactly new. Back in March, the Bush campaign itself went out of its way to make it clear that winning Iowa wasn’t a necessity in their quest for securing the Republican nomination.

Pfeiffer’s piece is a decent read, but it does contain some monumental errors. My favorite is this gem. “In 2012, Romney bet big on Iowa, spending a lot of money and time in the state, only to lose narrowly to Santorum. As a consequence, he was weaker in the later states, which extended the primary campaign far longer than he wanted, hurting his chances in the general election.”

Romney bet big on Iowa in 2008, not 2012. In 2012, he avoided Iowa like it was a plague. Eventually, Romney would engage in Iowa, but it wasn’t until the winter when the polls indicated that he could win Iowa despite his lack of a presence there. Romney went for it and campaigned hard in Iowa for the final push before the caucuses. Romney’s 2012 strategy was brilliant. And let’s be honest, it worked. Heck, he left the state victorious. Even though Santorum was declared the winner weeks later, Romney got everything he needed out of Iowa in 2012.

So, would it be wise for Jeb Bush to skip Iowa? Of course not.

Let me explain.

Just because Bush might not win Iowa doesn’t mean he should just skip Iowa all together. Winning is important, but who you beat is actually more important. For example, if Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee finishes first in Iowa, it wouldn’t send the Bush campaign into chaos if they finished in second place. In fact, it would be an easy result for their campaign to spin. Instead of focusing on who he finished behind, the media would be smart to point out that he beat candidates like Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and so on.

Political pundits, media outlets, as well as activists always seem to look at things from 30,000 feet instead of up close. They see a field of candidates that totals 17 people. They see the possibility that Bush, someone from a modern political dynasty, could lose to Scott Walker, or worst yet Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Jeb Bush isn’t running against Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, or even Donald Trump. It’s kind of like football and the different conferences. Candidates like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio play in the SEC. This has typically been the top conference in college football. This is where you expect the national champion to come out of every year. If Bush, Walker, and Rubio were SEC schools, Bush would be Alabama, Walker would be Missouri, and Rubio would be LSU. There are more than three schools in the SEC conference, but not all of them are heavy weights year in and year out. This is the same conference where Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki play.

When you look at the current polls and keep in mind what conference Bush is competing in, things suddenly don’t look so bad. In Iowa, Bush trails only Walker in his conference. In New Hampshire he leads Walker and the rest of the field. What about Trump? Well, he’s like Notre Dame. He has national fan base, lucrative TV contracts, and big expectations every year. Despite having all the advantages in the world, they last won a national championship in 1988. That’s 27 years ago.

If you take Trump out of the mix, would anyone advocate that Bush should give up on Iowa because he’s currently in second place behind Walker? Walker is unproven as a national candidate, and he doesn’t have the fundraising machine that Bush enjoys. If you surrender Iowa to him, you are just creating a bigger monster to slay down the road. Another possibility is that you give life to someone like Marco Rubio, who currently seems to be a candidate without a strategy or an early state he can win.

Since we are discussing polls, I feel that I should share my number one rule in politics. Any campaign that is obsessing about poll numbers six months before an election is doomed to fail. It doesn’t matter if you are leading in the polls or struggling. The smart campaigns ignore the polls and follow their own campaign strategy. The simple truth is that if you are running for president, you need to plant your flag in Iowa, New Hampshire or both. Yes, South Carolina plays a pivotal role, but you have to do something before you get there. Just ask Rick Perry how his South Carolina firewall worked for him in 2012.

In the presidential nomination fight, it’s as important to finish ahead of the other teams in your conference as it is to win an early contest outright. Trust me, in the end it will come down to one candidate in the SEC division, one candidate in the Big Ten, and one candidate in the ACC. It is also possible that Trump is in the mix as well.

The 2016 Republican primary fight will be nothing like the 2008 Democrat contests because there are so many Republican candidates running. Even though John Edwards ran strong in Iowa, everyone and their brother knew it was essentially a head-to-head matchup between Clinton and Obama. The rules of a head-to-head matchup don’t apply to a multifaceted contest.

In my opinion, Bush would be a fool to abandon Iowa because it will only help Walker or give life to another candidate in his own conference. Things look pretty rosy for Walker in Iowa today, but eventually he will have to fend off candidates like Huckabee, Cruz, and even Carson. The way I see things, Bush currently has the moderate establishment vote all to himself and the only one he has to keep an eye on is Rubio.

If anyone cares, here are my Republican football conferences.

SEC Teams

Jeb Bush – Florida Gators
Scott Walker – Missouri Tigers
Marco Rubio – LSU Tigers
Chris Christie – Georgia Bulldogs
John Kasich – Arkansas Razorbacks
Rick Perry – Texas A&M
Lindsey Graham – South Carolina Gamecocks
George Pataki – Vanderbilt Commodores

The Big Ten

Mike Huckabee – Wisconsin Badgers
Ted Cruz – Nebraska Cornhuskers
Bobby Jindal – Iowa Hawkeyes
Rick Santorum – Northwestern Wildcats


Donald Trump – Notre Dame


Rand Paul – Louisville Cardinals
Ben Carson – Clemson Tigers
Carly Fiorina – Boston College Eagles


Jim Gilmore – Utah State Wolverines