Iowa and New Hampshire: A Great Deal for 1.5% of America!

(Please see update below.) Earlier this month I made the rest-of-the-country's case against the disproportionate heft of Iowa and New Hampshire when it comes to choosing presidents. And that was even before a third-place finish in that least thorough or robust proxy for candidate excellence, the Ames Straw Poll, eliminated Tim Pawlenty from the race.

Fair-minded as always, I now make room for the right of reply. Then a few other views. First, from an Iowan:

>>I noticed that in one of your recent posts, you made a point to focus on the case made by "someone who lives in neither of the favored first-primary states" for the current system.

Isn't important to hear from people in those states as to why it matters?

I'm not a native Iowan, but came here from another state not too long ago, and the process of moving here has taught me why it's a good thing to initially limit focus on a couple of states during the presidential election. Before I came here, I really didn't care about the issue too much, and now I'm convinced it's critically important. Rotating through initial states is probably a fine alternative--but starting with a focus on a couple of states, the smaller in population the better, is key.

In previous states I've lived in, the election season was covered in the way I assume it is in most places--on video or audio already recorded or produced to be recorded, in short soundbites engineered to appeal to broad swaths of the population as quickly possible. The appeal to the electorate is superficial, focused on image, and highly, highly controlled. There's no opportunity for the electorate to challenge the candidates, to respond to their message. It's one-way communication, with the candidate isolated from the people they represent.

Here, in Iowa, I've been exposed to the alternative, which is that presidential candidates actually show up around the block unexpectedly. You can meet them. You can ask them questions. The candidates actually go out of their way to have meetings in places where actual conversations can occur, to meet people in hangouts, cafes, and local shops. The candidates are accessible and approachable (admittedly, only as much as is probably possible within the confines of a presidential election, but still).

This would not happen if the primaries occurred simultaneously everywhere, and would be less likely if they occurred in populous states first. The primaries are the one last place where people aren't totally disconnected from the national political process anymore, and it would be a real loss to the country if it were to disappear. Not in some fluffy, emotional sense, but in the sense that it would lower the accountability of the candidates even one level further, by making them less answerable--in a literal as well as figurative sense--to the electorate. Do we really want to cede *more* control over the circumstances in which candidates interact with the public?

I'd say that other states don't understand the importance of this, but I suspect, in fact, that they do and are just jealous.

Also, I've realized in Iowa that once candidates move on, they move on, and the big states and coasts get the spotlight moved back on them, where it usually is. Can they really not handle a momentary decrease of media attention?<<

I understand the attraction of this system for the 1% of Americans who live in Iowa, not to mention the half of one percent who live in New Hampshire. It's less obvious that it works for the other 98.5% of us, or for U.S. politics as a whole. (I would personally prefer a system that made each candidate come to my house for dinner -- and stay to clean up afterwards, plus maybe mow the lawn.) Iowans and New Hampshireites could argue that they are acting as the distilled representation of what's best in all of us. But when you see who often comes out on top there...

From another reader:

>>I actually like aspects of this system, if for no other reason than that candidates have to make a go in 4 smaller states from the various regions of the US, with a diverse set of populations and interests.

Yes, Iowans might not vote "correctly," but who does in a primary? The "Kerry is more electable argument" could have just as easily applied to a national primary.

But here's my suggestion:

    •    Take New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and put them in a "Northeast" bucket.
    •    Take Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and South Carolina and put them in a "South" bucket.
    •    Take Iowa, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas, then put them into a "Midwest" bucket.
    •    Take New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho, and put them in a "West"  bucket.

Now draw out a ideologically diverse group of 4 states and rotate through 5 groups of 4 early states, every 20 years, with a random state in each group going first in the rotation. Even better, we could have 5 groups of 5 states, making the early primaries a process for each one of the 25 smaller states in population. That lets candidates work more locally, and gives more populations a shot at choosing, while removing Iowa's hallowed status.

Yes, it's a rather insane idea, but so is what we're up to now, and this keeps big states that get general election attention out of the loop (Florida, etc).<<

And, from a reader willing to give the kiss-of-death to Mitt Romney:

>>While I think we all hate the early primaries, it's always worth noting that the Republican primaries and the Democratic primary systems are different.  The Republican primary system is winner take all and rewards extreme positions, while the Democratic primary is not.  This makes it really difficult to figure out what Republican candidate positions really are once until they win the nomination. Short of Perry and Bachmann, I'm less worried about Romney truly being unwilling to raise taxes.<<


>>Regarding the Iowa/ NH duopoly, here's a link sent to me by Rick Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine School of Law.  It would be great if a future Senate could revisit this legislation.
Senate Hearing on Regional Presidential Primary Bill
Posted on September 16, 2007
Thank you for providing a forum for people like me to vent our frustration on this important issue!!!<<

My pleasure. Not holding my breath for an actual change in the system, but it's worth continuing to point out why the current one is amok.

On the other hand, "What's good for 1.5% is good for the country" is increasingly the motto when it comes to, say, taxation policy at the top end. So maybe it makes sense more generally.

UPDATE. A reader who was worked in campaigns writes:

>>I am a former field manager for the John Kerry campaign during the 2004 general election--John Kerry was actually my third choice in the primaries--so I am sure you can imagine my interest in your discussion regarding whether the quadrennial focus on Iowa and New Hampshire is good for democracy.
There are two points that I think your correspondents get wrong. First, even among those who advocate a change in the system, there is an implicit assumption that 'real America' is rural America. Those who suggest a move to rotation among states not only suggest small states, but states without a single major city. For obvious reasons, this pulls attention away from wide swaths of America--minorities, the poor, young people, people who rent, people without a car--who are often under-represented in other ways too.
Second, your correspondents are confused on the focus states in the general election. This does not come down to a big-state/small-state divide. But rather a shoe-in/barnburner divide. So yes, Florida is a swing state, but the other states in the top five of population--California, Texas, New York, and Illinois--are not. Perhaps more importantly, and related to the first point, only 3 of the top 20 U.S. cities by population (Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Jacksonville) are located in a traditional swing state. Four major cities in California and six in Texas are ignored altogether.
The people receiving the least attention in both the primaries and the general election are in fact those who live in states where the the outcome is never in doubt, and as it happens those who live in states with major urban areas. And so politicians campaign and govern without those citizens much in mind.
My preferred solution is to move the general election to a popular vote (through clever legislative maneuviering if necessary). One voter should equal one vote. On primaries, certainly there should be some rotation. But there should always be at least one state included in the early rounds with a major city or urban area.<<