Every four years we are put through the increasingly prolonged charades that are the Iowa (IA) caucus and New Hampshire (NH) primary. Research across countries has found that campaigns of a sufficient duration allow voters to more accurately assess economic conditions. In the case of the United States, we have by leaps and bounds eclipsed this threshold and in its place constructed a money-sucking circus that benefits the near-pathological who want to endure it.
While the country is surely losing out in the dysfunctional process, NH and IA continue to benefit from political empowerment (otherwise obscure local chieftains can elicit legislative pledges—subsidized farming being paramount), the framing of winners and losers (catapulting obscure candidates or dethroning anointed ones), and a windfall of local economic benefits (In 2000, and it is surely larger now, it was estimated that the NH primary generated $147 million in additional economic activity).
With such obvious and undemocratic advantages afforded NH and IA, why is the process allowed to continue? And how did it begin?
Where things tried to go right, but didn't
The founding fathers were never keen on direct democracy, mob rule being as detrimental to personal freedom as monarchy. In their design of an electoral system, they not only staggered bicameral elections, but made the selection for the upper house indirect—Senators plucked by state representatives until the 17th amendment in 1913. Likewise, the general electorate was not to be empowered with the selection of Presidential contenders. This privilege, unaccounted for in law or the constitution, would fall to competing congressional caucuses.
In the early 1830s, a regional political movement with the singular goal of eradicating freemasonry came upon the novel idea of hosting a convention to decide its platform and leadership. The Anti-Masonic Party, as they called themselves, nominated a Presidential candidate and received 7.8% of the national vote in 1832. Recognizing the utility of a convention as a means to organize and manage campaigns, the two major US parties (at the time the Democrats and Whigs) adopted the practice--which would remain largely unchanged until 1968.
For more than 100 years, local party bosses from each state, with no consistent or reliable mandate from voters, would congregate at their respective conventions to trade favors and threats until a nominee was decided. Although thoroughly undemocratic, the process functioned reasonably well, with every four years bringing high drama and numerous ballots over many sleepless nights.
Then in 1968, as the war in Vietnam raged and young men were being drafted into the distant slaughter, the glass house shattered.
The violence engulfing the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago--an establishment candidate that had not really campaigned was chosen over a popular anti-war candidate—forced the party to reconsider the nomination process and hatch the McGovern-Fraser Commission to propose reforms. First and foremost, the Commission recommended that rank and file Democrats be allowed greater participation in the nominating process. Party bosses would no longer be able to handpick the delegates to the conventions (and by no longer, I mean that a shameful 20% of delegates are still chosen this way), rather, these delegates would be apportioned to each candidate based on the percentage of the vote captured in each state (each state could still decide how to gauge votes--either caucus or primary).
New Hampshire and Iowa arrive
The McGovern-Fraser Commission represented a tectonic shift in the political landscape and its basic structural recommendations were quickly adopted by both parties. Surprisingly, few realized the implications.
A quirk of the new format required party bosses to give 30 days notice prior to the election of delegates. Iowa, unique among states, had four rounds of caucuses from the local level to the state level. To allow for 30 day intervals between each caucus, Iowa would have to begin voting before the other states.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire in 1920 had established the first primary election to select delegates for the conventions. While admirable in its liberalism, the NH primary was a local curiosity and not something that attracted any meaningful attention—its delegates were a small piece of a much larger pie that would be divvied up later. Long being the first (and often only) primary, when the system shifted for the election in 1972, they held their primary first.
Yet in 1972 it didn't matter. The new format was still fresh in the imagination and didn't spark a great deal of media or candidate interest. However, by 1976 the value of IA and NH would come alive. A largely unknown, peanut farming, governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter managed to capture the vote in Iowa and with it, the attention of the national media. Catapulting Carter to the presidency, IA and NH quickly moved to fortify their new found influence—stipulating their pole-positions in state law and party dogma.
Why it matters
For the last 40 years, IA and NH have spitballed many justifications for their voting supremacy. Iowa has argued that they have a unique ability to tap the pulse of the nation in selecting national candidates. Just look:
Wow. They have picked eight of the last ten national candidates! That is pretty impressive, how about the Republicans:
Well, less impressive, especially after taking into account three unopposed sitting Presidents. But still, there is certainly a strong track record for picking winning candidates on both sides.
This misses the point entirely.
Of course, Iowa has a strong track record! It proffers a massive advantage onto its winner through media exposure, fundraising, and a mightily positive first impression that MAKES them far more likely to become the eventual nominee. It is like giving a broke gambler $1000 at a roulette wheel and saying you had foresight when they walk away with more money than upon arrival—while of course, some still gambling it all away before collecting their winnings.
Others argue that NH and IA are microcosms of the United States as a whole. Are they?
Here, IA and NH do better on some measures than others. They are generally as wealthy as the average US state and are well represented by military veterans. On the other hand, they have almost no latin population, very few foreign born citizens in general, are much smaller than the average state, and have few of the country's poorest residents. No matter what statistics you compare, NH and IA will never be, in any meaningful sense, prototypical. But who cares about prototypical! The point is to allow every US citizen to vote in a meaningful way, not to allow a statistically representative sample to decide.
As for the argument that because of their small size, voters get a 'real opportunity to meet the candidates and judge their character'.... yeah right.
Grabbing a candidate's deadfish hand, or riding in their helicopter, does not qualify as vetting. Nothing meaningful is revealed in 30 seconds over a pork chop--nor should a prospective President be judged by whether they imbibe deep-fried Kool Aid. And what? If California held the first primary, candidates would shake fewer hands? Spend less time there? It is equally plausible that the candidates would spend more time and shake more hands.
Can it change?
In 2012, Florida tried to move its primary up the calendar to allow its citizens the rare opportunity to have a meaningful say in choosing party nominees--only to be penalized half their delegates as a warning to others to no upset the unnatural balance. This punitive measure would be laughable in its injustice if the hypocrisy and corruption it represented weren't so meaningful.
What? We can't upset two relatively unpopulated states to reform a system that is so grossly undemocratic? Even if it were desirable to vote state by state rather than all at once, which seems to work just fine during the actual election, the other 48 states are unable to coordinate effectively enough to institute a simple rotation for electoral primacy at the expense of 2 stakeholders? We can't pick out of a hat?
Nor does there seem to be enough popular groundswell to stop party grandees from granting delegate status to their cronies. This innocent-seeming 17 year old has the equivalent selection power of 134,000 primary voters:
Unless there is meaningful change, it is my opinion that the parties move back to the pre-1968 candidate selection process. Back then, we were not subjected to the facade of having a genuinely democratic process and the oceans of money needed to sustain it. When candidates were decided in smoke filled rooms by party bigwigs, at least we knew that the candidates had the respect of their partners in governance and the stamp of approval to follow through on legislative ambitions. Instead, we are stuck with a process that at its very birth in NH and IA is a symbol of illegitimacy, the hijacking of politics by special interests, a broken campaign finance regime, and the inertia of incompetent government.
In 2016, if there is still a competition for presidential nominee by the time voting meanders to California—which is highly unlikely—I will not be participating. I will not be party to the illusion of having had a real choice. I would rather an unelected 17 year old add his rubber stamp.
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