Every presidential election cycle, one reads several stories (like this one from today’s Boston Globe) in which Iowans and New Hampshirites (I believe we are supposed to call them Granite Staters) worry aloud and/or complain that some development might undermine their special first-in-the-nation role in choosing the major party nominees.
Everyone wants to feel special, but I wish they would get over themselves. The Iowa/New Hampshire special role is one of those (many) strange quirks of the U.S. system that no one ever intended and that distorts the process. The rest of the country never agreed to this anointment of two (perfectly nice but no more special than the rest) states to have a permanent special status. Other than a lot of sentimental hooey, there is no justification for it.
Inevitably, the special role leads to a bunch of factors (the kind of factors that give a candidate special appeal in those two states) being given outsized importance. During non-election years, those with presidential ambitions have to ask themselves of various policies: “How will this play in Iowa?”
If you happen to own a TV or radio station in Iowa, the special role is great for your business. If you crave the opportunity to meet in small groups with presidential candidates, you will get it. If you happen to live in a state that is neither a “swing state” in the fall nor a traditional “key state” in the primary season (Minnesota, despite always ranking at or near the top in voter participation, is neither), you will seldom see a candidate.
(When I covered the Iowa caucuses one cycle, I was treated to an old Iowegian joke about wishing the candidates would get off their lawn so they can mow it.)
It’s not hard to think of a better, fairer system. The role of being an early caucus or primary state should rotate so everyone gets a turn. We could have a rational system in which states would be grouped into clusters (let’s say five at a time) and over the course of 10 cycles, each group would have a turn to be first and a turn to be 10th. That’s just one fairly obvious idea. There are others.