The winner of the Iowa caucuses in just a few days will be… the question: why is such disproportionate attention paid to the Iowa caucuses? Granted it is the very first time actual voting will take place, rather than just polling, in the 2012 presidential elections, but even that fact distorts the very process of choosing nominees in the coming elections that are so ominous both domestically and internationally.
Indeed, these caucuses are not even real elections. Rather than enter a polling booth and cast a secret ballot as normal voters do, Iowans gather in various locations across their state (churches, schools, even homes), discuss the nominees and other concerns, divide up into various groups, write the name of their preferred candidate on slips of paper which are then collected and tallied. The “results” are not binding, and actual delegates are chosen at county conventions later in the year based on – or not based on (!) – the “results” from these caucuses. In terms of actually choosing a president, these results do not matter in the real world but only in the media world that is only capable of reporting winners and losers but little else of substance. The horse race becomes the be-all, end-all of this process.
And when the delegates are finally selected months from now, they will total a whopping 1% of all the delegates at the Republican Convention. That is because Iowa is a small state, with a population of about three million people and whose largest city – Des Moines – has, roughly, just five times the population of Teaneck, New Jersey. Iowa is also not very representative of the rest of the country – overwhelmingly white, rural (although the population is today more clustered in urban areas), and evangelical – not that there is anything wrong with any of those, or with Iowa itself (which, after all, gave us the “Field of Dreams”).
And, if Iowans are extremely enthusiastic about the caucuses, approximately 100,000 people will take part – meaning a winner who receives 25-26% of the vote will garner the support of some 25-26,000 people, smashing his defeated opponents by…oh, 2000 votes ? Perhaps even 4000 votes ? The also-ran who winds up in fourth place and is dismissed by the media as dead and buried can trail the triumphant victor by 5000 votes. Does that make any sense at all – that a country of 310,000,000 people can write off credible candidates for the presidency because they lost in Iowa by a handful of votes? No – it makes no sense at all.
History bears this out. If Iowa’s choices had any impact on the rest of the nation, we would have enjoyed Presidents Huckabee and Dole (even Pat Robertson attracted votes than George H.W. Bush did in 1988), never heard of Ronald Reagan again, and suffered through Presidents Harkin (76% in 1992, the most ever of any candidate!) and Gephardt. Bill Clinton received the passionate support of 3% of Iowans in 1992.
The Iowa results do serve a purpose of winnowing the candidates (strangely, Tim Pawlenty was long gone two Iowa corn harvests ago). But should he have left the race so early, before even a single vote was cast? Should a Bachmann, a Gingrich, or a Perry drop out simply because they trailed in this non-binding vote by a few thousand people? Does a strong Rick Santorum finish mean anything more than in the peculiar demographics of Iowa he struck a receptive chord ? I would hope they would all continue regardless of the outcome here. Does a Ron Paul “victory” mean that he has any real support in more representative or diverse states, or would he just be this year’s Ed Muskie ? And far fewer Iowans participate in the caucuses than vote in the elections as it requires a much greater commitment of time than simply voting and occurs during the winter season when the weather can be unduly harsh in the American heartland. Turnout is key, but distorts rather than clarifies outcomes.
For sure, a Mitt Romney victory will vindicate his strategy of de-emphasizing Iowa this time around. During the last election cycle, Romney poured boatloads of money and spent an enormous amount of time campaigning in Iowa, finishing second and scarring his chances of ultimate victory. In 2011, Romney was rarely seen in Iowa until recently, and low-keyed the state. In fact, Romney may have devised a winning tactic in the last year, generally, by carefully limiting his television appearances and interviews, avoiding the overexposure that these days is bound to make any candidate or president (memo to Obama) look pedestrian and uninspired. The average American voter has gotten to know Mitt Romney mainly through the debates in which he has performed well, notwithstanding that debating has as much to do with the presidency as swimming does with the Rabbinate.
And from Iowa, it is on to New Hampshire, the “first in the nation primary,” which is unique in that it even less important than Iowa – an even smaller state, if that can be imagined – and therefore plays an even bigger role in the election process. That makes even less sense. The city of San Antonio has more people than the entire state of New Hampshire, New Hampshire is even whiter than Iowa, and it is a state without any sales tax or personal income tax. How it supports itself is less important than understanding why these states’ electoral choices should really matter. It is obvious that these states insist on being first because, if they weren’t, they would not matter at all. Certainly, every vote counts the same, but these votes seem to count more. Everyone who wishes and is eligible should have a voice, but no voices should be artificially augmented. These are, and the whole process becomes comically misrepresented.
As some have written recently (I recall both Fred Barnes and Daniel Henninger making these points), it makes one long for the days of the smoke-filled rooms. Before there were primaries, caucuses, polls, media favorites and beauty contests, party elders would meet either before or during conventions and nominate candidates they thought could win and could best represent their often diverse interests. Delegates were pledged, controlled and traded. Many of our finest presidents emerged from such a system (unfortunately, so did Buchanan and Harding), and many of those same presidents became independent of their original backers when they assumed the office.
Republicans have a fine group of candidates, almost all of whom would be immense improvements over the Oval Office’s current occupant. But there is a cachet, and strong advantages, to the smoke-filled rooms of the past that produced almost all the presidents through FDR’s time. It enables the country to use the election to focus more on the “what” – what needs to be done to rectify the country’s problems – than simply on the “who” – who wins and who loses, who is up and who is down. It forces voters to concentrate on policy and not personality or appearance – most Americans in the first century and more of American politics neither heard a president speak nor knew what he looked like.
And it would end the absurd spectacle of having potential presidents riding tractors in Iowa or snowmobiles in New Hampshire to prove their presidential credentials. Of course, like many things in life, what should happen will not happen, if only because – in this matter, at least – the states don’t want it, the media opposes it, and the whimsy of democracy demands it.
Who knows ? Perhaps one of the candidates here will win 30% (!) of the Iowan vote, and by virtue of his landslide victory – a margin of maybe 6000 votes – he will become the clear frontrunner and coast to victory in November 2012.
P.S. Here’s a better way: Have two separate dates for the primaries – one in February for eastern and southern states, and one in March for northern and western states – instead of staggering them week after week. Then, let delegates be approtioned according to votes, not winner-take-all. This way, each candidate will receive the attention he or she deserves, even if trailing, and will be a factor in the final decision. The trailing candidate’s support will have to be earned by the frontrunner, making for a stronger party and a stronger candidate.
Of course, it is too late for this cycle, but a candidate like Mitt Romney, who will likely finish in the top two or three in every state, would benefit from such a system, as his support would clearly be more widespread. And if the VP nominee was the runner-up, so be it. That might incline all the candidates to avoid scorched-earth campaigning that destroys each other and only benefits the incumbent.