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Iowa's role in presidential politics makes no sense

Rick Santorum campaigning at The Daily Grind in Sioux City.
REUTERS/John Gress
Rick Santorum campaigning at The Daily Grind in Sioux City.

How’s this for a clichéd lede: “All eyes are on Iowa’s first-in-in-the-nation caucuses …” where once again the first 100,000 or so Americans — all of them Iowans — will get to express a meaningful preference about who should be the Republican nominee for president in 2012.

I just want to ask: Is there any serious, rational way to defend this vaunted tradition?

Personally, the reasons given by those who defend and romanticize the special role of Iowa (and New Hampshire, while we’re on the subject) strike me as laughable, romantic nonsense.

Start with the idea of those iconic 100,000 or so Iowans (that number is based on the Iowa Repub caucus turnout over the last five cycles, which has ranged from 85,000 to 118,000). I offer due respect for the seriousness with which some of them take the process. On the other hand, if you’ve recently watched a focus group of undecided Iowa Repubs like the one Judy Woodruff conducted recently for the “PBS Newshour,” you couldn’t say they're substantially more coherent or fact-based in their selection process than similar denizens of other states.

One very earnest, likable young man told Judy that he had been fortunate enough to shake the hand of every single Repub presidential candidate and look them in the eye, which he said both “says something about being an Iowan” and also that you can “learn a lot from that kind of exchange.” I liked the kid but am not prepared to embrace the perfection of the handshake test for presidential selection.

But that’s not my main objection. It’s this: 100,000 Iowans who choose to spend this evening caucusing (by the way, the Republicans will not require photo ID’s for participation) represent not one percent, not one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population. One hundred thousand Iowans out of 200 million eligible U.S. voters equals roughly one half of one tenth of one percent.

The turnout for the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary is currently projected at 200,000 to 250,000. Throw them in with the Iowans as part of the group that has an oversized role in the nomination battle and now you’re up to something between one and two tenths of one percent of eligible voters.

So, to cut to the chase of my main objection, it’s not that a different tiny portion of American voters should have enlarged influence over the selection of presidential candidates. It’s that no tiny portion should. And, if you feel that some tiny portion must, don’t make it the same tiny portion every four years.

The ink-stained wretch proposal
Of course, the country never decided by democratic means to assign this role to those two small and not-any-more-typical-than-any-other states. If we were starting over with a blank sheet of paper and trying to design a better system, this would be my own humbly offered opening suggestion:

You could, of course, go with a one-day national primary. I see some merit in the idea and it would certainly do away with an overemphasis on the wants and needs of any one state. But, personally, I see merit in a process that produces a nominee over several Tuesdays early in the election year. So …

Rotate the first-in-the-nation gig and water it down. Every state has peculiarities. Iowa Republicans, for example, draw more heavily from evangelical ranks than do other states, and Iowa has local reasons for insisting that candidates pay fealty to agricultural interests in general and ethanol subsidies in particular. But the same peculiarities should not be given the same extra weight in the choice of nominees every time.

To make it really logical and fair, what if we divide all of the states into 10 groups of five states each (hereafter Primary or Caucus Groups or PCGs)  such that each PCG would have roughly equal total population? Then, by lottery or some other unbiased means, assign a number from one to 10 to each PCG. They would hold their group primary in that order in the first cycle under the Wretched Plan.

Now here’s the beauty. The next time around, the group that was No. 1 would move to the No. 10 position and every other PCG would move up one slot. Over 10 cycles, every PCG would experience the special joys and privileges of every spot in the batting order.

That’s the basic principle. Every state gets its equal turn to be part of the group that goes first, with all the extra candidate attention, media attention, hoopla, TV advertising dollars and center-of-the-political-universe feeling. And each would have its chance — but only once every 10 cycles — to have its particular fetishes pandered to. And — since the Wretch Plan gives first turn to five states at a time — the attention on any one of them becomes a tad more reasonable.

Within the framework of that basic rule there is, of course, nothing magical about five states per Tuesday for 10 Tuesdays. It could be 10 per Tuesday for five rounds or any other math that creates roughly equal groupings by numbers of states and total population.

Just to help you think about those possibilities: This year’s primary and caucus schedule consists of 20 different election days stretched across almost six whole months, from tonight’s opener in Iowa to Utah’s primary June 26.

Lots of problems
Personally, I don’t see any serious philosophical problems with the Wretch Plan (of course I wouldn’t). But there are major practical/political problems. Each state has the legal power to adopt its own primary schedules. No one is authorized to impose a schedule like this on all 50.

The national political parties would be the obvious candidates to enforce the new plan. But they haven’t been very effective at bossing the states around. As of now, they have tried to impose some guidelines (always premised on preserving the Iowa/New Hampshire stranglehold on the first two events). But they haven’t been very successful at enforcing it merely by threatening to reduce the delegate strength at the nomination convention of the states that violate the guidelines.

New Hampshire, in fact, violated the guidelines this year by moving its primary date up to its earliest date ever. New Hampshire stands liable to lose half of its national convention delegates as a punishment. But New Hampshire didn’t care about that. That’s just evidence that the states care more about the attention and leverage they get by being early in the process than they care about their actual number of delegates.

There’s also a certain amount of sentimental rubbish based on the very thin notion that the wisdom of Iowa caucus-goers and New Hampshire primary voters are essential to American greatness and was given to us by the Founders. The history is not nearly as deep as all that.

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses date back only to the 1970s. New Hampshire has, indeed, held the first-in-the-nation primary in every cycle since 1920. But you might be surprised (I was, when I looked it up) that the New Hampshire was never a factor in any nomination contest until 1952 (when Dwight Eisenhower won the primary without directly campaigning). And New Hampshire didn’t acquire its current importance as a regular major step on the road to nominations until at least 1968. For most of those earlier decades, the Granite State held a primary but elected an unpledged delegation that went to the convention in the control of party bosses.

In recent history, while neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has been a reliable predictor of the outcome of contested nomination battles. There is a long list of men (and one woman, Hillary Clinton, New Hampshire winner in 2008) who won one or the other of those contests and didn’t become the nominee. As Newsmax summarized last week:

“Since 1976, there have been seven contested caucuses in the Republican Party. Of those contests, three winners have become the party's nominee.

“Since 1972, there have been nine contested caucuses in the Democratic Party. Of those, the winner of the caucuses has gone on to be the Democratic nominee five times.

“But if you put the two contests together, they pack a powerful punch. Since the mid-70s, when they both became relevant, only Bill Clinton has won a major nomination without winning one of the two contests.”

Of course, there’s no reason to presume that any of the nominating contests would have turned out differently under a different schedule or order primaries, although it does make sense that certain candidates play better in Iowa and New Hampshire than others who might do better with a different lineup. But the point of the Wretch Plan is not to bring about different nominees, only to break the monopoly of two states that have had it long enough.

Note: The version of this post that was published this morning misstated the portion of the U.S. electorate represented by Iowa caucus-goers. I hope it's right now.

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Comments (14)

If it was up to me I would scrap the party primary and caucus system altogether and give the decision to all 50 of the states' delegates at the national convention.

States could use the time leading up to the convention to select delegates that the state party entrusted to represent the state at the national convention.

Then after a week of televised 1-hour speeches and 3-hour debates at the national convention, the state delegations would be polled on the convention floor by the party chairman (like they do now) to cast their delegate votes for the nominee.

When one of the candidates has reached a majority of delegate votes, the nominee is named and gives a 30-minute acceptance speech to launch the campaign.

This latest fiasco, hopefully, will finally make Iowa irrelevant.

Mr. Pawlenty and Ms. Bachmann really had no choice but to play ball since it is a neighboring state. The rest of the candidates - with the exception perhaps of Ron Paul - have absolutely nothing to gain by participating.

Hopefully next time candidates will decline to participate. Results guaranteed not to reflect any sort of consensus. Predictive power of IA caucuses non-existent. Damage to all candidates horrendous.

I think the importance of the Iowa caucuses derives from poll sampling principles - so the caucus goers are thought to be a representative sample of the electorate. The is one fly in the ointment - caucus goers are a select group, in terms of motivations, of people. If caucus goers each have a fair shot at being selected a delegate to the Iowa delegation to the National Republican convention, then the daucuses could be said to be a predictor of the Iowa endorsement vote. The idea that caucus goers are a reliable sample of the state, let alone the national, electorate needs to be analysed carefully. There is a historic record of elections on which to base the analyses.

There is something to be said for Iowa and New Hampshire having the first say in that they counterbalance the obsession of the press (and the political parties) with the East and West Coasts being the centers of the universe.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire are cold states--requiring people to be practical in their everyday lives, and yes, a bit more conservative. In that sense, they are good indicators in the how-is-this-candidate-going-to- sell in areas other than the East and West coasts, which have been known to get hot and giggly over some fairly far out candidates on the left and the right. Which is why I've personally enjoyed watching Michele Bachmann self destruct in Iowa--honey, take a lesson from Al Gore--if you can't carry your "home" state, it ain't gonna happen.

And an "upset" win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire makes the press sit up and take note that there might be election factors at play that they haven't noticed because of their Washington-centric bias--think Gene McCarthy in 1968, or perhaps Ron Paul in Iowa tonight. While I personally think he's as hypocritical in his alleged libertarianism as Newt in his family values, there may be a interesting Tea Party and anti war conjunction that puts Paul over the top in Iowa. The press hasn't even explored that, because the Washington folks have dismissed Ron Paul as not even presidential timber--so no real coverage about him or his campaign.

Keeping Iowa and New Hampshire in the front of the selection process at least does a counterbalance to the coastal perspective bias. We may not agree with the Iowa and New Hampshire prespectives, but we know what they are and appreciate their point of view for what it's worth. You know, like listening to both CNN and Fox so we get a more facets of the truth.

There are some legitimate reasons for letting Iowa be first. It is a well-educated population that reads newspapers at a higher rate than most states. It has few really rich people. The people are more engaged than in most places. It has a lot of highly educated people. And they have as good a mix of farming, industry, technology, etc., as any state.

However, after having lived there for eight years and covered politics for the Mason City Globe-Gazette at one time, I can tell you that reason Iowa fights so hard to retain its first-in-the-nation status has more to do with economic development and tourism. Every four years, they get a whole year of people renting offices, buy services, hiring people, paying for advertising and filling motel rooms. Imagine if Minnesots got to open its lakes to fishing one spring in four to all the anglers. That's worth fighting for.

I'm not complaining Eric but you really didn't have to write a whole article about this, the title pretty says it all. The only thing is I hope Iowa will know Bachmann off the stage for good.

Thanks for the good article. I really agree, and as you may know, there has been a somewhat official proposal to create a rotating regional primary system that is a close cousin to what you propose:

It seems like one of those issues, like tax reform or middle east peace, where the all The Right Smart People agree on the framework for a solution and it just never happens. I think one other reason that Iowa stays exalted is we have this national fetish for Rural America being a place where Real People live. Even though American live, overwhelmingly, in metropolitan areas we still hold onto this belief that Rural America is an oracle. I think that good, bad, and ugly exist in big cities, suburbs, and small towns.

On a related note about your national primary idea is California will be attempting something similar this year for state constitutional officers this year: It seems interesting.

The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are ways to admit marginal candidates into the electoral process before moving to larger states where the cost of television advertising would eliminate all but the most well financed candidates.

You can blame the thousands of reporters that show up to cover the Iowa caucuses for blowing them all out of proportion to their real significance.

You can also blame Iowa and New Hampshire officials who love the attention they get and the amount of money spent in their states, some of which might result in permanent jobs for their citizens.

Thank you, thank you, Eric.

I don’t even know if I’m behind the “Wretch Plan” all the way, but I AM aghast that the same two tiny, unrepresentative states have such an inordinate influence on the process of electing a president.

Lauren’s point about getting away from the media-obsessed coastal bias is well-taken, but there are LOTS of Midwestern states to choose from that don’t necessarily share the values of either coast, and if you’re determined to include reactionary, self-described “independence” as part of the process, put New Hampshire on the shelf for a while and give Wyoming or Montana a try.

“High Country News,” an environmental biweekly paper that provides very good coverage of western state environmental issues, and sometimes dabbles a bit in western politics as well, has endorsed John Huntsman in these terms: “Not only is Huntsman the best-qualified candidate in the Republican primary, he's also seeking to revive fact-based, reasonable Republicanism.”

Fact-based, reasonable Republicanism, of course, doesn’t fly well in Iowa’s caucus environment. The clown parade we’ve been witnessing is testament to that.

I should add that I was a participant in the caucus process in another state during the 2004 election cycle, just to see what it was like. For one thing, it’s not at all like the general population. Caucus-goers, if not completely ideologues, are at least far more committed to ideological policy positions than is the general public. What you get from caucuses are extremes. Democratic caucuses tend far to the left of the public, while Republican caucuses tend to be far to the right.

I don’t have a better idea than Eric, and I don’t know that the “Wretch Plan” would solve all the issues surrounding the current political framework for selecting candidates for the presidency. That said, however, it would be hard to devise a more perverse and inaccurate measure of public support and “connection” on the part of a candidate than the current caucus system in Iowa, and I do side with Eric regarding the main point of criticism. There’s no rational reason why Iowa and New Hampshire should, time after time, have the disproportional role and influence they currently have on the political process.


The caucus system is an historical vestige of 18th century travel and communications realities. Because a simultaneous popular vote wasn't possible, an upward cascade of election of delegates was set up, beginning with the caucuses and ending with the Electoral College.

The caucuses (at least in Minnesota) are a vestigial parallel nomination system that candidates can ignore, as Mark Dayton did in 2008, when he showed up at the DFL Convention just long enough to say that he wasn't participating. He then ran a media campaign in the primaries and got the nomination.

Personally, I think that the best thing that can be said for the caucuses is that at the precinct level they provide a day in the sun for local party activists, and give individuals an opportunity to (at least fell like they are) participate in the political system. I think, however, that the most successful candidates bypass it. Maybe we should leave local politicking for local politics. If we value a role for local organizations in the political process, requiring the collection of signatures to get on the ballot is a good practice.

So, while the caucuses have a function that should be preserved, I think that the choice of primary candidates for state and national offices should be based on a national primary. If we could roll back the Roberts Court action granting first amendment rights to corporations, we could also limit the length of political campaigns. As you point out, this would require a further diminution of states' rights, but the Roberts Court does not seem to have any problem with this.

Geez sounds like the hunger games!

Eric, while I would also like a change, I'm not sure that the Wretch plan would work so well. The biggest problem is that depending on how the states are apportioned, the entire slate could be far too front loaded. California alone accounts for nearly 10% of the electoral votes all by itself.
I like this proposal from Jim Geraghty:
Basically the states would go in reverse order of how many delegates they provide. There is a nod towards grouping states by region so that poorer candidates wouldn't be priced out having to run ads all over the country right away.

The tricky thing is that the various state political parties are in the driver's seats right now and I don't know how to make them agree to a change. Would Iowa give up the first in the country status if Des Moines hosted one or both conventions? Or could a strong enough central party force the changes on them? I really don't know.

I'd like to see either the Wretch Plan or a national primary with all states voting at once.
Primaries should, however, be moved to the weekend and should last for two full days to be sure that everyone who wants to vote is able to.

We do desperately need election reform that (1) takes the money out of campaigning so good candidates who aren't rich can take part and to reduce the influence of corporate contributors and, (2) as in France and perhaps other countries, radio and TV networks and stations must provide free access to all candidates and paid advertising is forbidden.

As I've posted before, the problem is not spending -by the candidates-; it's spending by the newly encitizened corporate persons.