Why Iowa Shouldn’t Vote First Anymore

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Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry poses for pictures after a campaign meet and greet at The Button Factory restaurant on December 21, 2011 in Muscatine, Iowa.

A week before Iowa’s January 3 caucuses, the outcome of the Republican contest is hard to predict: Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all stand a chance at winning. But something else already seems clear: Iowa has blown its special claim as the first state to vote in presidential contests.

Iowa’s first-to-vote-status dates to 1972, when a quirk in Democratic Party rules scheduled its caucuses ahead of the New Hampshire primary, which had opened the presidential nominating process since 1920. Republicans followed suit four years later. Iowa’s political establishment quickly found that it enjoyed all the attention and economic activity that came with going first, and enshrined into state law a mandate that Iowa vote at least eight days before any other state.

Iowa seems to have gotten away with this leap to the front of the line in part thanks to its folksy all-American image as a heartland state home to honest, common-sense rural folks. But with every passing decade, Iowa’s electoral character grows more out of step with the reality of the United States. Iowa is an unusually homogenous — that is, white — and rural state in an increasingly diverse and urban nation. And it’s long been a custom of presidential politics to see the candidates extol the virtues of expensive farm and ethanol subsidies with precious little economic rationale.

In response, Iowans insist that their state has special virtues that make for sound presidential vetting. The state Republican Party’s website, for instance, boasts that Iowa’s small size, along with the intangible virtue of its people, justifies its exalted position:

Iowans take the caucuses very seriously and respect their position as First in the Nation. Many Iowans meet candidates personally and ask them detailed questions about particular policies. Some presidential candidates have noted that Iowa voters ask some of the most sophisticated and nuanced policy questions they receive while on the campaign trail.

Sounds nice, but that rationale doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. Iowa may take the caucuses seriously, but wouldn’t we expect any other state to do the same? And while Iowa voters sometimes ask great questions, so do voters elsewhere. I’ve also heard Iowa voters ask some really silly and uninformed questions. The idea that geography determines political aptitude is more than a little dubious.

Here’s where the experience of 2012 should be most damning for Iowa’s privileged place. The mythology of the caucuses is based on close personal contact between voters and candidates. In theory, the candidates traverse the state’s plains and cornfields to let voters size them up at close range, to test them and take their measure in coffee shops and meeting halls where people live plain and simple — and political spin just doesn’t fly.

But the candidates who have spent the most time and effort on the state, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum (who has famously visited each of the state’s 99 counties, the poor man), are reaping precious few rewards in the polls. The caucus frontrunners, by contrast, haven’t really played by Iowa’s rules. Mitt Romney spent most of 2011 avoiding the state. Newt Gingrich campaigned there sporadically until his surge, and even then has showed his respect by leaving at critical moments. Then there’s Ron Paul, who may win the caucuses with a small plurality while peddling a foreign policy message totally unacceptable to most of the state’s Republicans.

So why have these candidates risen to the top? Because the entire Iowa campaign has tracked the national one. Iowa’s procession of frontrunners — Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Gingrich, Paul — has roughly mirrored the boom-and-bust pattern found in national polls. It seems unlikely that these fluctuations have been driven by the “sophisticated and nuanced policy questions” of Iowans. More likely, they reflect the drama of the televised debates and national media events like Herman Cain’s string of female accusers. (Cain, by the way, leapt to first place in the state at a time when he was paying it no visits at all.) What’s the point in having Iowa go first if its voters are simply reacting to the same debate zingers as the rest of the country?

And by the way, remember the Ames straw poll in August? That contest was supposed to tell us important things about the candidates’ true strength and appeal in the state, and to winnow the field in ways that would make it stronger. But the straw poll’s victor, Michele Bachmann, promptly tanked, and the candidate whose third-place finish drove him from the field — Tim Pawlenty — looks in hindsight like the credible Mitt Romney alternative for whom the party has spent the past six months searching. It’s been six months in which Iowa has played along with the hyping of one candidate after another.

Iowa is a lovely state packed with wonderful, thoughtful and good people. But is this really the picture of an unusually discerning and responsible electorate? And if not, why in the world should Iowa continue to get the first say?