A Rant about Iowa, New Hampshire, Deep Fried Twinkies, and Starving Kids
If worst comes to worst, one of the Republican candidates currently crawling through the state of Iowa will become responsible for a $15 trillion economy, a 5,000 warhead nuclear arsenal, and the welfare of 307 million Americans. But first, they must all pay homage to a 600lb cow made of butter, extol the virtues of rural America, and pledge allegiance to one nation under corn, with ethanol and high fructose corn syrup for all. Such are the imperatives of the presidential primaries, which give out-sized influence to the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary thanks to those states’ perverse stranglehold on “first in the nation” status and the media’s obsession with the winners of electoral contests attended to by far less than 1% of US voters.
There are, to be sure, apologists for a system in which two small, lily-white states monopolize the resources and attention of presidential contenders for the first year of the electoral cycle. They argue that only in Iowa and New Hampshire can candidates be forced to engage in retail politics, eschewing expensive and alienating television advertising in favor of face-to-face contact with voters in diners, coffee shops, and living rooms. This kind of “citizen-based empirical assessment” is apparently impossible in Florida, Texas, Indiana, Nebraska, or Vermont, whose coffee shops are somehow less conducive to the practice of democracy and whose voters are too preoccupied with the vagaries of everyday life to serve as gatekeepers to the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.
The truth is that there’s nothing exceptional about either Iowa or New Hampshire that would qualify them for their exalted status. Iowa is 90% non-Hispanic white, New Hampshire 93%, compared to the United States’ 65%. Neither state is representative of the United States demographically, economically, or politically. Nor are the states’ voters more deliberative, responsible, or knowledgeable than the median American, with a study in 2000 finding “voters in Iowa…despite an intense campaign neither learned more than voters in other states nor appeared more engaged with the campaign.”
The states’ small size is something of a non sequitur. Were the current system replaced with rotating primaries, wherein states or regions took turns going first, candidates would not be required to shake hands with every voter in California, Michigan, or Arizona, but they would make a concerted effort to connect with some of them. The stuff-on-a-stick delicacies of the Iowa State Fair (in case you were wondering, Joe Lieberman is a fan of the deep-fried twinkie) have their place, but wouldn’t it be edifying, not to mention amusing, to have presidential candidates share barbecue with a Texas oil rigger or eat a hot dog with a New York cabbie while discussion something other than commodity farm prices?
Meanwhile, the quadrennial spectacle of pandering and debasement surrounding the early primary states would merely be an affront to procedural fairness if the consequences of parochial politics did not extend to creating misguided national policy. Senator McCain once said, “Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality." He was right on all counts, until he had a change of heart: “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects." Such are the vagaries of Iowa. Meanwhile, food prices are rising for those least able to absorb the impact and the United States’ decision to burn food for fuel is at least partly responsible.
Of course the Iowa Caucuses don’t shoulder sole responsibility for an insane agricultural policy that places tariffs on foreign sugar (at a cost of several billion to consumers), subsidizes corn (at the cost of $74 billion to taxpayers over the past 15 years), and makes Americans fatter while denying nutrition to impoverished people oversees. The blame must be shared by the lobbying and financial power of agribusiness and the over-representation of rural interests in the US Senate. But the special status of the early Caucuses do not help.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The unfair and capricious primary process is one root of our dysfunctional politics. We should strike at it.