Presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama are seen in this combination photo. REUTERS/Keith Bedford (L) and Lucy Nicholson
It happens every four years—the choices of a tiny portion of Americans living in a small, rural and mostly white state get to turn the entire country on its head, as Iowa is first out of the gate in voting the select the next President of the United States. This year, the Iowa caucuses saw a record-setting number of voters, about 350,000, which still only equals about 1/10 of 1% of the population of the United States. Though the entire nation is talking about the stunning upset victories of Obama and Huckabee in Iowa, these candidates won by only 20,000 and 10,000 votes (respectively) over their next-best opponent—a tiny number of voters compared to the entire American electorate (Find state-wide and county by county results here).
Besides being small in number, Iowans are known for being odd in their voting habits. Iowa voters lived up the records of Iowan caucus-goers in the past by dethroning the presumed front-runners of both parties, voting against the establishment campaign of Clinton for the upstart Obama, and against the big-money of Romney for the populist Huckabee, an obscure Arkansas governor. Though Clinton, Romney and Giuliani were clearly winning what political scientists call the national “invisible primary” (leading in national campaign donations, opinion polls, recruitment of volunteers, endorsements by establishment leaders and national media attention—and all before a single primary or caucus election was held), Iowa voters ignored the national trends and catapulted different candidates into the national spotlight. O n the basis of national trends, no one predicted Huckabee had a chance a month ago. Obama was doing better in the invisible primary, but was still behind in all national polls, and most talk was about the unstoppable Clinton machine. Check out this USA today poll tracker, which shows that while the nation as a whole wasn’t taking an Obama presidency very seriously over the last year, Iowan’s had a different opinion.
Regardless of who seems to be leading in the nationwide invisible primary, candidates know how important the actual results of early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina can be. Check out this New York Times map of Democratic candidate campaign visits over the last year.
Iowa and New Hampshire get a whole lot of attention—but most of the rest of the nation is empty and forsaken in terms of hearing from the candidates one-on-one.
Is it good that the states of Iowa and soon-on-its-heels New Hampshire—which are unrepresentative in being far smaller, far whiter and far more rural than the rest of the nation—pay such a huge role in boosting candidates into the national eye, while dooming the chances of others?
There are alternatives. One commonly discussed alternative is to move to a national primary. If all the states in the country voted on the same day to nominate the presidential candidates, then the preferences of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina would suddenly be less important—only the national mood of the country would matter, especially the mood in heavily populated states like California, New York, Texas and Florida.
But its not clear that a national primary would be such a good idea. A national primary would require all candidates to campaign often and early in the largest states and across the nation, which would mean that much of the campaign would be through television ads able to reach large audiences and which would cost millions of dollars. Only the most well-funded and well-known candidates would be likely to survive such a process—we certainly couldn’t expect populist, underfunded candidates to be able to make their case face-to-face like they do in Iowa and New Hampshire. Check out this campaign finance report showing that Romney has spent $53.6 million in comparison to Huckabee’s $1.6 million so far this election. Would Huck have a chance without Iowa?
Without a process of several small primaries and caucuses for unknown candidates to make their case and gain momentum, the nation would never have got to know the obscure Governor from Arkansas known as Clinton in 1992, nor would the obscure Governor from Arkansas known as Huckabee have hit the radar screen in 2008. Without New Hampshire, the underfunded and underdog campaign of John McCain would never had a chance against George W. Bush in 2000. Without Iowa and New Hampshire, the unknown Jimmy Carter would have never had a chance against the party establishment in 1976.
So the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary (and the primaries that follow) allow and require candidates to rely on something beyond big money and national name recognition—the candidates actually have to campaign face-to-face with voters, allowing voters to meet the candidates in living room coffees, town hall forums, and even sometimes walking door-to-door. After meeting the candidates in this way, impassioned voters can make a difference. Iowa allowed first-time voters and young voters to confound the expectations of party leaders and national money-counters and to vote for their heartfelt values and hopes for change, rather than simply accepting notions of national inevitability or a candidate’s national electability. For example, CBS News reports that 57% of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa were participating for the first time, and 41% of them voted for Obama (versus 29% for Clinton). Young voters turned out in droves in Iowa as well, with 18-30 year olds voting 5-1 for Obama.
And there’s another possible benefit to the current system. In the days to come, the nation will turn its eyes searchingly upon both Obama and Huckabee, inspecting them for their presidential caliber in a way they never have before. For example, check out this CNN report on Mike Huckabee, following the Iowa caucus results.
Obama and Huckabee are the front-runners of the moment, that is true, but they now have to carry their momentum into new states, survive a new round of national examination, and continue to win over voters. Providing for a series of primaries instead of a single national primary date allows voters to explore various candidates, to double-check their first choices, and to have time for second-thoughts and regret. Perhaps America will agree with Iowans and settle on Obama and Huckabee—but perhaps they will not. The nation now has time to sit back, breathe a bit, and take it all in before making this momentous choice. Such a process allows national deliberation, though a series of election days and the inevitable media attention that follows each one, rather than requiring voters to put all their eggs into the single basket of a national primary day. There’s something to be said for that.
There are undeniable complications and disadvantages to the current system of nominating our presidential candidates, but before we move to a national primary, let’s be sure we have carefully considered what advantages we might be losing.