By now it has become an American tradition. Iowa and New Hampshire come to bat first during the presidential primary season. The greatest complaint lodged against this practice is that these states are not representative of the nation in terms of demographics.
However, that should merely be an afterthought. The main point is that no state, no matter how representative or unrepresentative of the national profile, should be given such clout as to lead off the presidential season year after year and decade after decade. It is stunning that the other 48 states acquiesce to this formula of granting these two states the privilege of whittling down the presidential field. There is no rhyme or reason as to why two small states should have such a disproportionate influence and impact on selecting presidential nominees. What if Delaware, another small state that also just happened to be the first state to join the union, suddenly said, “Hey, we were first so we should vote first?” They would have just as valid an argument as Iowa or New Hampshire.
Candidates have become obsessed with Iowa, camping out there as if it were a holy land. In August 2011, the Ames Iowa Straw Poll alone was enough to sideline former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who had once been considered a top contender for the GOP nomination. Despite finishing third in a 10-person field, Pawlenty dropped out the day after the poll. Several candidates usually withdraw from the race following the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, leaving voters in the other 48 states with a much narrower selection of candidates from which to choose.
Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have embraced their unique status and have even come to insist upon it as an entitlement if not a divine right. To protect their fiefdoms, they have even moved their events up to so early in January that other states would have to schedule a primary or caucus in the odd-year before the presidential election year in order to precede them. The weather in early January is often brutal in northern states like New Hampshire and Iowa, and inclement conditions could well depress voter turnout, leaving the decision up to the most extreme elements of political parties. But that does not deter Iowa and New Hampshire. The only thing of concern to them is going first. And it’s easy to understand why.
The existing system is certainly beneficial economically for Iowa and New Hampshire. The candidates, their entourages and the media trudge about the state and draw upon services that boost Iowa’s transportation, restaurant and hotel industries. The candidates buy media time to spread their messages and this helps the communication outlets of these two states.
One of the main arguments the residents of Iowa and New Hampshire make for the privileged status they enjoy is that their states are designed to foster grassroots participation and “retail” politics. But just as the automobile rendered the horse-and-buggy obsolete, so has the Internet and new forms of social media made retail politicking a thing of the past. At one point Newt Gingrich had surged to the top of the polls in Iowa even though he had not spent a lot of time going door-to-door or attending small get-to-know-you events. But what brought Gingrich’s numbers down was a barrage of negative attack ads that flooded the Iowa airwaves and smacked far more of wholesale than retail politics.
Another claim the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire put forward to maintain their advantage is that they are very studious and conscientious, and that they take the process very seriously and invest the time and effort to know the issues and the candidates. This sounds very arrogant and suggests they believe they are somehow better qualified to vet candidates than are voters in other states. The primary system of today is a fairly recent phenomenon, but Iowa and New Hampshire voters are now so entrenched in their position of going first that you would think this has been an American tradition going back to George Washington’s time.
Why should states on the back end of the process have only one or two candidates to choose from when Iowa and New Hampshire sometimes have close to ten? States voting toward the end often have nothing left to do but rubber stamp a candidate who has already been selected for them.
To end the unfair domination Iowa and New Hampshire impose over the rest of us, a National Primary and Caucuses Day system should be implemented. This would be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May. It would accomplish the following:
1. Allow all the states, commonwealths and districts participating in the process to have a more equal say in choosing a presidential nominee.
2. Shorten the seemingly endless campaign season. There would be no need for candidates to be tramping around Iowa over the Christmas holidays in anticipation of caucuses that are scheduled for just after New Year’s Day. The campaign season would be more compact and candidates would have to pay attention to all the states and map out a national strategy instead of concentrating on just the early states as in the current process.
3. Give big and small states a voice in the process. The small states would still be vital because the big states alone could not give a candidate enough delegates to win the nomination. Candidates would have to pay attention to most, if not all, states.
4. Beautiful spring weather should encourage more voters to turn out than do today in the cold and snow of winter primaries.
5. Increase the likelihood of a brokered convention. With all or most of the major candidates still in the race on National Primary and Caucuses Day, there is a much greater chance of a deadlocked convention. The leading candidate would have a much harder time garnering enough delegates on that one day than he has under the present system when his competition fades away and he wins by attrition. A brokered convention would allow traditional party operatives to have leverage in the process, while still respecting the voters who went to the polls. This would reduce the excesses of the extremes and make it more likely a strong, competent, moderate candidate will emerge as the nominee.