It’s as inevitable as it is ridiculous. We’re about to obsess on Iowa polls, followed by Iowa caucus results, followed by a silly game called “How many tickets out of Iowa?”
In case the “tickets” reference doesn’t ring a bell, over recent cycles a political maxim has held that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” meaning that anyone who didn’t finish in the top three in the Iowa caucus was finished and should go home. Lately, I see some speculation that the rule of three may not apply in 2020, but that can’t be known because there really is no such rule. It’s just a way of saying that the other 49 states, without ever having agreed to such a rule, have to pick from what Iowa leaves us because … well, just because.
I’ve expressed this view before but now’s the time to do it again. No state (nor any two states, since we’ll do it again with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary) should permanently be granted an outsized role in choosing our major party nominees for president, and even if there were an excuse (which there isn’t) for allowing the same states to always go first, these two largely rural, overwhelmingly white states would make poor choices.
The Iowa situation is further sillified (I made that word up) by the fact that it’s a caucus state, which further reduces participation to those hard-core few willing to sit through an hours-long process, which includes the likelihood that some who attend will not even get to register their support for their first choice because of the complicated rules of “viability.”
On the other hand, and running somewhat contrary to the rant just above, while finishing fifth or lower in Iowa probably means a candidacy will soon disappear, winning Iowa certainly doesn’t ensure anything.
On the Republican side, none of the past three Iowa caucus winners (Ted Cruz in 2016, Rick Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008) ended up winning the nomination. In fact, the ultimate 2008 nominee, John McCain, ran fourth in Iowa with 13 percent support, 21 points behind Huckabee and a fraction behind third-place finisher Fred Thompson (remember him?). So, apparently, even the three-tickets-rule is not perfect.
On the Democratic side, as a matter of fact, all of the recent Iowa winners did get the nomination. but, in the most recent case (2016), Bernie Sanders’ very strong second-place showing in Iowa (he finished two-tenths of one percent behind the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton) probably signaled the enervating Clinton-Sanders battle that probably ended up helping elect Donald Trump.
Anyway, these are really details that can be argued either way. The fundamental point is that we have 50 states, and 48 of them never agreed to make their choices for presidential nominees from a field winnowed to two or three by Iowans and Granite Staters (as New Hampshirites are sometimes called).
It’s too late to do anything different about the big problem of that duopoly this time, but my own suggestion is that, starting as soon as possible, states should be grouped into five clusters of 10 states each (or ten clusters of five if you prefer), and, over the course of several presidential elections, each cluster would have a chance to be first, second, etc., and last. Presumably, within each cluster, a particular candidate would see one state in which they have a decent chance of making a good showing. Or not. But at least the other 48 states would rise and fall in relevance over time, rather than the same two states being in charge of winnowing the field for the rest of us.