The 2012 presidential campaign officially begins today.
The state of Iowa will make its over-analyzed and disproportionate quadrennial impact on presidential politics today by holding its first-in-the-nation primary vote.
But be not deceived by all the noise surrounding the results. Iowa is but a drop in the bucket of the presidential sweepstakes. If you doubt that, consider the past candidacies of Richard Gephardt, Tom Harkin, Ed Muskie and Mike Huckabee.
Each came in first in his party's Iowa caucus race between 1972 and 2008 yet failed to win his party's nomination.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, finished fourth in the 2008 GOP caucuses yet became his party's nominee, just as Democrat Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988 but won his party's nomination.
It's not that Iowa doesn't mean anything. A 2008 win in Iowa helped propel Barack Obama to the White House. It's just that many people — mostly self-interested politicians and overexcited news reporters — contend that it is far more meaningful than it really is.
At this stage of the game, presidential politics is mostly a matter of perception. That's why Iowa has clung to its first-test status since 1972, when it became the No. 1 state in the nominating process. Other states have tried to jump the process to become No. 1, but Iowa still comes first with its Jan. 3 date.
This election isn't even an election. The caucuses are neighborhood meetings where those few who choose to participate state their preferences. The participants elect delegates to county conventions, where delegates are elected to state conventions, where delegates are elected to national conventions. It's a cumbersome, complicated process that will be quickly forgotten once New Hampshire kicks off a long list of states holding presidential primary elections.
The news media is, as usual, going crazy over the caucus process. Reporters will pronounce winners and losers with certainty, even though the record suggests that it's all much ado about very little.
Remember, it was just a few months ago (August) when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won an Iowa straw poll, not even a real election, that she insisted made her a strong contender for the Republican nomination. The polls now suggest she's a non-factor in the caucus competition.
In other words, what supposedly mattered yesterday is virtually meaningless today. And that's how it is with the Iowa caucuses — their power is in the public images that are created.
George H.W. Bush won the GOP Iowa caucus in 1980 and famously declared that his campaign had picked up the "big mo" — big momentum. But Ronald Reagan won the Republican Party nomination and a landslide White House victory.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush finished third in Iowa behind Robert Dole and Pat Robertson but won the Republican Party nomination and the presidential race.
Political junkies, of course, have the time of their lives mulling over the numbers from Iowa, and they'll be having a blast tonight. But over the long haul of the nomination and election process, Iowa is more pretender than contender.