Why We Hate Iowa and New Hampshire, Cont.

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obamabuttercow2.jpg

Not the states themselves and their fine people, of course. But their tyranny over the process of winnowing out the field of presidential candidates. (Plus, the art they inspire -- at right, a heroic bust meant to represent Obama, in the style of the Iowa Butter Cow, via Wonkette.) A few days ago I quoted several readers' complaints on this topic, plus the following defense of the way things work now:

>>One very positive feature of the current circus system is that it gives politicians time to learn how to be presidential candidates -- how to organize a campaign and identify people they can work with, while giving the public insight into how they handle the crises that come up along the way. I'd count Barack Obama as someone who clearly learned how to do this in the smaller scale of Iowa, and Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton as people who -- for different reasons --  failed that test. I don't see how this would happen with a regional primary or even a large-state beginning to the contest.<<

Now, several people who don't buy that argument. From a reader in Wisconsin:

>>I noted the correspondent of yours who values the quadrennial Iowa circus and the New Hampshire primary because they teach aspirants for the Presidency how to be candidates.
 
That's what's wrong with them.  Our last three Presidents (at least) have emerged from the interminable process of prepping the battlefield in those two states (plus, for Republicans, South Carolina) vastly more focused on the task of appealing to a narrow segment of the electorate than they would be otherwise.  Their message discipline is tighter in every way.  Their campaign operatives are closer to them, and more influential on their thinking.   They are much more enthusiastic about fundraising.
 
Iowa and New Hampshire are great training grounds for teaching men and women how to run for President.  They are spectacularly bad at teaching them anything about how to be President.  Every skill or habit they teach is an impediment to a Chief Executive.  It is possible to imagine other ways of choosing a President that would be as bad or worse in that regard, but this requires effort.  Blow them both up, and blow up South Carolina with them.<<

From a reader in Pennsylvania:

>>How come a presidential candidate can't learn the very same thing in an early primary in any other state in the Union?  It's not as though Any-State-But-Iowa-Or-NH is going to be impossible to prepare for. Rotate them out, if nothing else.
 
The only reason that very, very minor and almost inarguable change can't be adopted is because, well, it's easy when the playbook has already been written on that 1/25th of the states (to say nothing of their percentage of the population!).  Easy for the candidates and easy for the press. But if we can't handle even that much change in our political process, can we really consider ourselves so very exceptional?<<

 From a reader in Vermont:

>>I've been in marketing for about three decades. I'm no J. Walter Thompson mind you, but I've learned a few things and one of these is to be skeptical of "research." Here's what I mean: Come up with the headline for an ad, inevitably someone not in marketing will suggest, "Why don't we ask customers what they think of that ad?" This is not a good idea, because as soon as you ask someone what they think of your headline, they change instantly from a consumer into a critic. They want to appear smart. They want to impress you with how thoughtful they are. They no longer react to the headline the way they would if they just saw it in a magazine. (I'm not suggesting a skillful researcher can't create a good test for a headline, just that asking a customer what they think of it generally provides useless information.)

So how does this relate to Iowa and New Hampshire? The problem as I see it is that the voters in those states take their responsibilities too seriously. The try to think for the nation and not simply as a voter. I recall a perfect example of this phenomenon from the 2004 election. Howard Dean entered the Iowa caucuses as a surprise favorite but didn't win. After the voting I heard an interview with a voter who explained that she preferred Howard Dean to John Kerry, but voted for Kerry because she thought he was more electable. At that point I was pretty certain Kerry would not win the national election. His "win" in Iowa was the result of voters trying to guess what the rest of the country would do, and not a vote inspired by the candidate. Nevertheless, the damage was done, Dean faded from the race and the rest is, gulp! history.

Anyway, that's why I'm in favor of changing the process. I hope I haven't insulted any Iowans or New Hampshirites. This would be true for any state or region that was continually asked to be the bellwether.<<

I'm sold. Nothing against these two excellent states, or even South Carolina and my friends there. But this nutso system has got to go.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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