The presidential-primary season is now behind us, mostly, and the quadrennial hand-wringing has begun over the prominent roles played by the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. It's not surprising, of course, that the candidates who fared poorly in these early contests would suddenly realize that Iowa and New Hampshire are profoundly unrepresentative of America as a whole. Iowans on average are more literate than the typical American, and they get divorced far less frequently. New Hampshire is tiny, rural, white, fickle, and flinty. Sheesh! If only they'd known!
But it's not just the losing candidates who weigh in. No sooner is the traditional first tally reported from Dixville Notch than the press corps heads south from its long winter encampment with a case of seasonal affective disorder or post-electoral tristesse. The litany of complaint grows longer with every presidential cycle. The columnist William Safire almost a decade ago called the New Hampshire primary a "media-saturated joke"; the state's citizens, he went on, are "overexposed, over-polled, over-campaigned upon." The New York Times, arguing recently for the creation of a "more thoughtful process," noted that there is nothing "historically sacred" about Iowa's "icicle-festooned precinct scrums." Appearing last January on The Capital Gang, Kate O'Beirne, the Washington editor of National Review, remarked, "The Iowa caucuses measure something. They sure don't measure the national appeal of a candidate." The San Diego Union-Tribune, published in a mighty state that has played no serious role in the presidential nominating process in two generations, was scornful of Iowa and New Hampshire. "They are such small states," an editorial observed in January. "In fact, with 2.9 million residents last year, Iowa was no more populous than San Diego County. With 1.2 million residents, New Hampshire was no more populous than the city of San Diego." The former senator Slade Gorton, of Washington, has sonorously declared that "nonsensical traditions of presidential candidates posing for photographs in Iowa cornfields and eating doughnuts in New Hampshire diners are not a proper manner in which to select the leader of the free world"—a sentiment embraced by Senator Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, until he himself decided to compete in New Hampshire (and perhaps embraced by him once again, in the wake of his abysmal showing in that contest).
This year, a few days after the New Hampshire vote, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, provided an opening for sharp criticism of the selection process when he put New Hampshire on notice, explaining that it had better vote Democratic in 2004 if it wanted to retain its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The predictable cries of outrage from New Hampshire politicians and editorial writers were met by huzzahs from elected officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania, who pointed out that their states are considerably more reflective of America's diversity than the Granite State is.
The skepticism about Iowa and New Hampshire has its merits, no doubt, and when the national election is over, we'll hear about ideas for reforming the selection process. Someone will again propose a series of regional primaries. Someone will again suggest that the state with the highest voter turnout be allowed to hold the first primary next time. Maybe the honor of first-in-the-nation primary should henceforward be awarded alphabetically, starting with Alabama in 2008 and moving to Wyoming two centuries later. And so on.
But a central background question remains on the table. If Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of America (as obviously they are), then what is the most representative state? Michigan and Pennsylvania may be "more" representative than Iowa or New Hampshire, but are they utterly representative? If we had to select one state to stand for America in all its parts—the state you'd transplant to Mars to make sure our starter colony grew up just like the country we have here—which one would it be?