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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’96: Dole’s Third Time Charm

This is the seventh installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.

By the time Kansas Senator Bob Dole declared his candidacy for president for the third time in 1996, he already had two Iowa caucuses – including one victory – under his belt. He knew the state, was well-versed in the issues Iowans cared about, and had a comprehensive network of volunteers and staffers who knew how to run a successful Iowa campaign. Beyond the Midwestern advantage he had coming from a neighboring state, Dole had spent enough time in Iowa to be labeled by the press as our “third senator.” As Majority Leader of the Senate, he had name recognition rivaling those of the two Senators elected from Iowa. After he attempted the presidency in 1980, Dole formed a close alliance with Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley by mentoring him upon his election to the Senate. He earned one of only two endorsements that Grassley would make before the Iowa caucuses. So, Bob Dole knew Iowa, and Iowa knew Bob Dole. Still, in a year that seemed to favor political outsiders, Dole had his work cut out for him as he sought the Republican presidential nomination for the third and final time.

The field of Republican candidates in 1996 represented the national ideological shift right of center following the conservative realignment and the rise of the Evangelical movement in the 1980s. As the country moved right, primaries began to favor more populist candidates, and 1996 was no exception. It was partially this desire to move away from establishment party favorites that placed Bob Dole in the difficult role of trying to stay perched atop a field of ideologically diverse conservative candidates. Even though Dole had the most experience of anyone in the race, he saw no lack of competition.

One of Dole’s biggest rivals in 1996 was former Nixon staffer Pat Buchanan, who found a home among the more conservative base of the Republican party. Despite his history in Republican presidential politics, Buchanan campaigned as an outsider in Iowa, claiming that as an appointed employee of the bureaucracy, he was not as entrenched in the swamp as his peers who were running as Members of Congress or Governors. Additionally, candidate Steve Forbes used his fortune, partially inherited and partially made in the magazine industry, to assist his campaign in 1996. His financial resources allowed him to wage a comprehensive advertising campaign, using attack ads against his opponents to increase his standing in the race. Despite his financial advantage, however, he received a considerable amount of backlash from Iowa voters due to the negativity of his advertisements, and he came out of the caucuses with a fourth-place finish.

Also important to the early stages of the 1996 caucus cycle was the recurrence of the Ames Straw Poll, which happened more than six months from the scheduled caucus date. After votes were counted, it was discovered that in an unlikely scenario, Texas Senator Phil Gramm and Bob Dole had both tied for first with exactly 2,582 votes each. Although this signaled good news for both campaigns early in the race, Gramm could not maintain his lead with the same enthusiasm as Dole. It was Buchanan and Phil Gramm competing for the anti-establishment conservative vote leading up to the Iowa caucuses, and as they drew closer, Gramm began to lose traction as Buchanan increasingly found support among Evangelical voters.

From the very first day of his campaign in 1996, Bob Dole faced extreme pressure to perform well in Iowa. His underdog victory in the 1988 Iowa caucuses placed great expectations on his success; he was aware that anything less than a first-place finish in Iowa would likely be fatal to his ’96 campaign and his political future. Unlike his ’80 and ’88 campaigns, this time around Dole, he had the full support of the establishment Republican party. He would be reassured in his candidacy when he won the Iowa Republican caucus for the second time on Feb. 12. However, with less than 3% margin of victory and Buchanan following closely behind, Dole was left with little space to celebrate. As a precursor to the trend of non-established candidates performing well in presidential primaries, Buchanan’s success among Iowan voters seriously threatened the Dole campaign.

Many were quick to notice the fact that Dole performed better in the 1988 caucuses than he did in 1996. Questions of his effectiveness came into play as some Republicans declared that his best days were behind him, using his narrow victory as proof that he would be unsuccessful in a general contest against Clinton. Despite these challenges, Dole maintained enough momentum to secure the Republican nomination 16 years after he first put his hat in the ring. Yet, he failed to find enough support upon sharing his message with a national audience. With Ross Perot posing a lesser threat to his victory in the electoral college, incumbent Bill Clinton won a decisive majority in 1996, defeating Bob Dole and thereby making him the only person who has won two Iowa caucuses without winning the presidency.

In a caucus cycle labeled the “year of the outsider,” both parties still managed to nominate two establishment candidates at their party conventions. Regardless, for the Republicans, 1996 was a close race that proved the competitiveness of increasingly populist outsider candidates. Even today, conservative populist Pat Buchanan claims that he would have been the Republican nominee if he had done a few points better in Iowa, reinforcing the belief that Iowa’s status as first in the nation has substantially impacted national politics.


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