The Iowa Circus, Pro and Con (Updated)

By James Fallows

Pro: I argued a few days ago that the Ames Straw Poll is of virtually no use in actually choosing a president, which I still believe. (Also here.) But Garance Franke-Ruta on our site has done a wonderful account of the whole Ames experience as spectacle-cum-Americana. This is very much worth reading, less for what it says about our politics than as a snapshot of our modern life.

Con: A message just now from a reader who is obviously no fan of Bachmann et al but is a lot more upset about the outsized role that Iowa and New Hampshire claim for themselves every four years. His lament:

>>As horrible as I find the current Republican presidential field to be, I find our current presidential nominating process even more horrible.  How many more presidential election cycles must we suffer through before voters in the other 48 states join forces to smash the Iowa / NH stranglehold and replace it with a rotating, regional primary format?  I know there's no perfect presidential nominating process, but is the current format truly the best that we can do? Conservatives love to speak of "American exceptionalism", but what could be more un-exceptional than the current presidential nominating process? Why must Iowa and New Hampshire be accorded the permanent privilege of vetting presidential candidates for the other 48 states?
It amazes me to constantly hear members of the Washington Press corps trumpet the virtue of Iowa and NH voting first and second because the citizens of these states do such a wonderful job of vetting candidates and take their responsibility so seriously.  This completely ignores the fact that the other 48 states never formally agreed to give Iowa and New Hampshire this awesome responsibility.
Do you support a rotating, regional primary format or any other reform that clips the wings of Iowa and New Hampshire?  Do you know of any person or organization that has proposed a rotating, regional primary format or any reform that blunts the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire?  I don't consider the game of musical chairs that several states have engaged in with Iowa and NH to move up the dates of their own primaries or caucuses in recent election cycles to be a meaningful reform effort.
Can you foresee any possibility of a solution to liberate the presidential nominating process from the twin-headed monster of the Iowa Presidential Caucuses and the New Hampshire Presidential Primary?<<

The direct answer is that I've about given up on this. Since I myself will never be stumping for votes in Iowa or New Hampshire, I can say: it is nuts to pay so much attention to them. But as with so many odd parts of our political process, it's a lot easier to see what's wrong with current arrangements than to figure out how to sell all interested parties on a change. Unfortunately.

: After the jump, a case by someone who lives in neither of the favored first-primary states on why the process makes sense. I do not plan an open-ended debate on that topic but thought this was worth adding.

A reader from Michigan writes:

>>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.

In a parliamentary system, the leader is chosen by a group of insiders who know the candidates well, but that's not what we have. I've never lived in any of the early primary states and have occasionally regretted the fact that that means I don't have the say their residents do. But candidates clearly learn and change as they go through this process, and a system that required them to scale up faster to a national campaign would probably mean even fewer opportunities for outsider candidates than we have today.<<

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