Primaries: Who Should Go First?

Iowa’s status as starting gate for the presidential primary is once again under assault.  It happens, with varying degrees of intensity, in every election.  People in other states, along with a few Iowans, scratch their heads and wonder at the logic behind giving them first crack at the candidates.  New Hampshire went first until 1972, and if they regained their lead position, we’d be just four years away from a tidal wave of editorials wondering why New Hampshire should go first.

Michael Crowley at Time offers an interesting deconstruction of the Iowa mystique, noting that the state’s “procession of frontrunners” has “roughly mirrored the boom-and-bust pattern found in national polls”:

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.

The Paul surge has made the Iowa GOP establishment visibly nervous about losing their electoral pole position, with Governor Terry Branstad pre-emptively downplaying a Paul win by openly encouraging people to pay attention to the second- and third-place winners.  Pundits across conservative mediaspace have warned Iowa that it could discredit itself by handing victory to Paul, especially if he goes on to play a prominent role in losing the election to Barack Obama with an eventual third-party run. 

This is understandably either infuriating or bitterly amusing to Ron Paul supporters, but in the long run, Iowa would still be getting nasty-grams from the punditocracy if they give Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich a huge win, and they went on to lose the general election.  Likewise, if Paul wins the caucuses and ends up in the White House, the 2016 election would be heralded by thousand-word essays pondering the mystical political wisdom lurking between the corn rows.  Iowa needs to become a productive part of a winning narrative to quell the challenges to its status.  The paramount importance of winning in politics should never be underestimated.

As it stands, we spend every fourth year wondering why national candidates should be compelled to pour millions of advertising dollars into a small state where Democrats might have a lot to say about who wins Republican delegates, and the air of pizza restaurants is made to crackle with wildly improbable praise for ethanol.  But if not Iowa, then who should go first, and why?  Would some larger and more diverse state provide a more representative benchmark for the national race?  (Judging by the Crowley critique, part of the knock against Iowa is that it does reflect the national race all too well, so nothing special is gained by launching the presidential race there.)

Why should any state go first, or last?  Surely modern communications and data processing technology would allow for a much more compressed primary schedule – perhaps not all in one day, but rapidly enough to prevent the early states from so completely eclipsing later primaries in importance.  One of the points on Rick Santorum’s presidential resume is that he can do well in Pennsylvania during the general election, but their primary won’t be held until April 24, and it’s quite possible that Santorum will be out of the race before they get a chance to vote for him.  Ron Paul’s fate may well be determined 12 or 13 weeks before anyone in Texas gets to weigh in. 

The early primaries in South Carolina, Florida, and a handful of other states could forge a nearly irresistible campaign narrative for someone by the time Super Tuesday rolls around on March 6.  Certainly few of the current candidates will remain viable alternatives by the time the later March and April contests roll around.  The candidates understand all this, of course, and generally tailor their strategies to secure crucial victories in early states before they run out of gas.  A notable, and disastrous, exception was Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 campaign, which banked heavily on a strong start in Florida, but didn’t survive as a potent force long enough to shock the world with a big Sunshine State debut.

Iowa’s odd, perhaps illogical first-place position is only part of the problem with a system that doesn’t necessarily seem optimized for selecting the best national candidate.  The extended schedule for this year exacerbates the problem, as New Hampshire gets a week to digest the Iowa results, then South Carolina will be exposed to almost two weeks of intense 24/7 news analysis before they make their choice, producing ten hall-of-mirror days of media rumination before the Florida primary.  It’s a long series of preludes and introductions, resulting in a contest that’s more of a horse race than a sober deliberation, marked with self-fulfilling prophecies of campaign doom. 

Does it really have to be this way?  What would the primary voters of California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah say, if they didn’t have to wait until June, when their first choice for President might have been long ago buried in an unmarked New Hampshire grave?