When I became editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette later in 2008, I wondered whether I would have the courage to voice this heresy from such a prominent Iowa forum during the 2012 caucus season. Other opportunities drew me away from Iowa, so I offer my opinion now, one week before the 2012 caucuses, from the safety of Virginia.
While I am no longer living in the state, I offer this view with a lot of love for Iowa and a ton of caucus experience.
I am an Air Force brat with wanderlust and no hometown, but I am deeply and fondly tied to Iowa, more than any other state. I graduated from high school and started my journalism career in Shenandoah, Iowa. Depending on how you count time going to college in Fort Worth, Texas, but coming home to Iowa for summers and vacations and time I spent commuting between two states, I lived in Iowa for 13 to 19 years. And that doesn't count 10 years at the Omaha World-Herald, covering Iowa stories frequently and visiting family in Iowa often.
My wife Mimi is an Iowa farm girl (who disagrees with me on this topic). Our three deceased parents are buried in Iowa and we both still have siblings living in Iowa. Two of our sons were born there (the third was born in Omaha when we lived in Iowa).
I spent a decade at the Des Moines Register, most of that time when it was a statewide newspaper that set the agenda for the state and dominated caucus coverage. Few journalists have covered as many Iowa caucus campaigns as I have, in as many different ways (I'll detail my caucus experience in a separate blog post on caucus day). I enjoyed 15 minutes of fame in 1983-84 as the creator of the Iowa Caucus Game (a board game that was never updated as video game or app, alas).
I don't share any of the bizarre (and mostly false or exaggerated) notions of Iowa that Stephen Bloom voiced in his Atlantic essay that has been widely criticized and mocked (more on that in a footnote). My problem is not at all with Iowa itself, but with the notion that any state should claim the first spot in line in perpetuity and with the exaggerated self-importance that Iowans use to justify their claim to that spot.
Iowans are a patriotic lot, so I plead with them to relinquish their death-grip on the first spot for the good of the nation. Here are eight reasons why we need to let someone else be the first to express presidential preferences:
- Iowa's caucus promoters peddle their cherished notion that Iowa has a unique flavor of "retail politics" that lets an appealing candidate rise from obscurity without a ton of money. That notion is outdated, if it ever was true. We haven't had a candidate launched from obscurity to the White House by an Iowa win since Jimmy Carter in 1976. If that hasn't happened in 36 years, can't we just admit it was a fluke, or that things have changed enough that it will never happen again?
- "Retail" has long since been replaced by big-money campaigning and an endless parade of charade "debates" that are really a contest to deliver the best sound bite for people who didn't watch the debate or to avoid an embarrassing gaffe. That may be a change in politics that would follow to any state that's first, but we sure need a different dynamic in the nomination process from what we now have in Iowa.
- Iowa does a mediocre job of choosing candidates the rest of the nation will like. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were elected without even winning Iowa (Bush won the year he lost to Reagan, but finished third in Iowa in 1988, when he won the election).
- Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, are you really going to argue that the overall nomination/campaign/election system is working well? Are you pleased with the choices you're getting on your ballot every four years? I'm not saying that changing Iowa's role is the only reform our political system needs. It's one of many. But let's start with the start of the nomination process.
- Iowa is not nearly as diverse as the nation's population. It is older, whiter and more rural. To give so much power every election to a state so unrepresentative is wrong, even if the state did give a boost to our first African-American president. Certainly no state is representative in every respect, which is exactly why this spot should rotate.
- We're ready for some other state's clichés in political campaigns, rather than candidates pretending they don't look out of place on Iowa's farms and pedaling on RAGBRAI as though they really are cyclists.
- The caucus system exaggerates the influence of small pockets of highly motivated extremists, such as the Iowa Republicans who gave Pat Robertson legitimacy in 1992, when he edged the elder Bush for second behind Bob Dole. Our nation is not well-served by a process that encourages extremists.
- Iowans weave an illusion of democracy around the caucuses. But caucuses really are an undemocratic process. Far fewer people turn out for caucuses than for primaries. Iowans serving out of state in the military can't caucus. Homebound elderly and disabled people who could vote by absentee ballot in primaries can't participate in caucuses. Primary polls are open long enough for any working Iowans to vote, but if you have to work the evening of the caucuses, your vote doesn't count. Arcane rules, ad-hoc alliances and outright deal-making exaggerate candidates' advantages and weaknesses in a process that doesn't use the secret ballot. Iowa-caucus advocates claim some kind of virtue to the commitment required to go out on a cold January night to spend a couple hours arguing politics. But the fact is that participation is low and bizarre.