Iowa and New Hampshire should get over themselves

A cow stands in front of barn in Homestead, Iowa.

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.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 06/18/2015 - 10:52 am.

    Regional Primaries

    I believe it was the National Association of Secretary’s of State that at one time proposed a presidential primary system that would focus on geographic regions (five or six) so candidates would not have to hopscotch across the country. The contests would be held every three weeks or so beginning in early February. Those regions would then rotate when theirs were held so no one area always got to go first. Though my recollection was that Iowa and New Hampshire would always get to go first out of deference (or just to get them to stop whining) to their status as early contests.

    It was a reasonably logical and sensible approach to how we choose our party candidates, which of course is why it would never get adopted.

    One gets the feeling that Iowa and NH would push their contests before New Year’s Day to preserve their sense of self-entitlement.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 06/19/2015 - 10:24 am.

    What I don’t get is the hold they have on the parties. Why can’t the parties put in a fairer system. I suppose I get that the Evangelical Wing holds sway in the GOP, but why can’t the Democrats decide to start with Minnesota and California?

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/19/2015 - 03:04 pm.

      One theory

      Can’t recall where I heard this suggested, but it makes some sense. The parties leave it that way because for all the resentment it engenders, it lends some predictability to the nomination process.

      The hole in that theory is that, if I understand correctly, both Iowa and New Hampshire have state laws saying they must go first, and automatically moving their caucus/primary to a date earlier than any other state. Parties threaten to penalize states in terms of the number of delegates to the national conventions, but I’m not sure many people care enough for that penalty to stick.

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