Richard Cohen misunderstands the Republican nomination process:
Cohen’s Law goes like this: Republicans who win Iowa in January lose America in November.
Harry Enten and Jonathan Bernstein have explained a lot of what Cohen gets wrong in this column. They both note that he gets the New Hampshire primary electorate completely wrong. There are a few more things to add to this. First, the Republican candidate who wins in Iowa in January has failed to win the nomination more often than not, so that candidate has not usually not been in any position to win or lose the general election. Bob Dole is an an exception, since he won in Iowa in 1996 and became the nominee that year, but Cohen cites Dole‘s Iowa win to support his thesis that Iowa always rewards “far right” candidates. Of course, Dole was perceived as an “establishment” moderate then and later, and he was considered to be the “next in line” to become nominee after his campaigns in the ’80s. Indeed, Dole chose Kemp for much the same reason that Romney chose Ryan last year: to console disappointed conservatives that didn’t really want Dole as nominee and to give them a reason to be excited about their presidential ticket. Dole went on to lose the general election badly, but this had everything to do with competing against an incumbent president in good economic times and nothing to do with his winning in Iowa. So “Cohen’s law” is seriously flawed and appears to be irrelevant to contemporary Republican politics.
Following McCain’s nomination in 2008 after a relatively short, front-loaded contest, Republicans wanted to make the process last longer to avoid a similar outcome in 2012. As it turned out, Republicans got their drawn-out process, but still ended up nominating the relative moderate in the field anyway, so it was in some respects the worst of both worlds. Now party leaders want to go back to a short, front-loaded process that avoids the prolonged intra-party feuding that was on display last time. That will make it much more likely that the relative moderate in the next group of presidential candidates ends up becoming the presumptive nominee early on. The Republicans have a “primary problem” in the sense that they don’t seem to be satisfied with their system no matter what it is. They have had rules that reward the de facto front-runner candidate for his name recognition (as in 1996, 2000,and 2008), but that has consistently produced relatively moderate nominees. That annoys conservative activists, but it’s not clear why it displeases Cohen. More recently, the GOP had rules that gave more obscure candidates a better chance to compete (as they were supposed to do in 2012), but this unintentionally turned the contest into a competition among various would-be entertainers and political circus performers because of the nature of conservative media and dissatisfaction with the front-runner among “very conservative” voters.