Three states, small states, relatively insignificant states, play a huge role in determining what the outcome of the national presidential election will be. I live in one of them. In January (the dates are fluid), New Hampshire, and soon thereafter South Carolina, will hold primary elections. On a Tuesday night before either of those, Iowans like me will freeze our cabooses off by driving through our cold neighborhoods to school gymnasiums, auditoriums, community centers, and other such places to gather and discuss who the nominee of our party should be.
I’ve already taken a picture with one candidate. Both of us in that picture have approximately an equal chance of winning the Republican nomination. I received a call from the representative of another candidate who wanted to come and visit our church on Sunday and “say a few words” during our morning worship. We have a policy against that. I’m guessing your church doesn’t have a policy about what to do when a presidential candidate asks for time in the morning worship service. When you are one of the larger evangelical churches in Sioux City, it’s not a bad idea. Donald Trump was in Sioux City last night, using vulgarity to chide Iowans for allowing him to slip into second place. In my years here, I’ve prayed twice at events for a president (guess which one). I have a friend who has taken pictures with almost every candidate from either party – it’s his hobby.
Today, the estimable Rev. Dr. Bart Barber complained about this system on Twitter, and eventually Facebook, questioning the validity of a system that gave Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina such a prominent role in the selection of a president. Here’s his tweet:
Tell me again how it helps our nation that Iowa, NH, and SC get to pick for all of us who will run for President?
Most of his friends chimed in with agreement, so I defended the honor of the state in which I have lived for approximately 35 of my 58 years. I exchanged a few insults about how our ice cream (Blue Bunny) is better than the swill he talks so much about (Blue Bell), but I also tried to defend the system that gives my state such influence in the candidate selection process.
(For the sake of ease, I’m not going to continue to distinguish between our caucus system or the later primaries. They are different, of course, but for these purposes, it will all be primaries from here on out. In primaries, you guys go in and vote. In caucuses, like in the picture above, we sit in a room, give speeches, and then vote.)
There are really three issues here.
A. Is Bart’s statement correct? Do the three states “pick for all of us who will run?”
Yes, and no. You don’t necessarily have to win Iowa or New Hampshire, but you’d better not finish off the podium in both, and expect to keep moving on. Someone could lose both those primaries, finishing a close second, for instance, hang around, build momentum and win. What our primaries do is thin the herd. After the Iowa, NH, and SC primary season is over, there will not be 17 GOP candidates anymore (what is that down to now, 15? 14?) There may be about 5 or 6 left in the race and only 2 or 3, maybe 4 will have any hope of the nomination.
But, in general, Bart is pretty accurate here. A candidate has to do very well in these primaries, and preferably win at least one of them, to have any hope at all of being the nominee. So, while it is not technically true, I’m not going to quibble with the good doc. He’s pretty much right.
There is one point needed here for accuracy’s sake. There is a fourth primary that takes place at the same time as South Carolina’s, in Nevada. That means that Bart’s question should be about “four states” not three.
There are two other questions, though. One is theoretical and the other is specific.
B. Is it a good idea to have smaller states be the proving ground for primary candidates?
Obviously, it probably depends on where you live. I can tell you as an Iowan it’s great for the economy. It’s about the only time (except every decade or so when our football team has a good year) when we are important in the nation’s eyes. So, in that sense, we like it. On the other hand, it is tremendously annoying. You think you get tired of political ads? Come to Iowa in caucus season. I dare you. And when the presidential election is over in November of 2016, before the last chad is hung in Florida, people will be wandering through Iowa forming exploratory committees for 2020. I kid you not.
But I think there are some good reasons to have smaller states be the battle grounds for primary season. First of all, what are the alternatives?
- A national primary? If all the primaries and caucuses were on the same day, only New York, Texas, Florida, California, and a few other swing states would see any of the candidates. The bulk of campaigning would be done by commercials, by political staff and lobbyists, by debates (putting more power in the hands of the media – did you see the mockery the CNN hacks made of the last Republican debate?). There would be virtually no personal contact between candidates and the people, just big events, media events, etc. Small candidates would have absolutely no chance. If you didn’t have the money to buy a national media blitz, you are toast.
- A big state primary? That is certainly an option. Of course, the big states get all the attention in the national elections and some of the same problems apply there that would apply to a national primary. Think about this. The population of New Hampshire is under 1.5 million. Iowa is just over 3 million. South Carolina doesn’t quite reach 5 million. Texas? It is nearly 27 million. California has nearly 40 million and New York and Florida both are at nearly 20 million. These are small countries! The kind of ground game that is played in Iowa and New Hampshire simply could not be done in those states.
- Something else? A rotation of states? A lottery?
So, all in all, I think it is a good idea for small states to be proving ground for candidates. Here are a few of the reasons I believe that.
- These smaller states are a cross section of America and give a variety of chances for candidates to hit it big. Iowa’s GOP has a quirky base. Ron Paul’s zealots grabbed control of the party structure here for a while and it was a little odd, but that day has passed. Our GOP is notoriously evangelical conservative. It gives someone like a Mike Huckabee or a Rick Santorum and chance to come out of nowhere and build a following. Ben Carson has a double digit lead right now (I’m not a Carson supporter, but thank goodness the Donald’s support is rapidly waning). The Democrats here are pretty hard core liberal – we were one of the first states to have same sex marriage. We have right wing Republicans and far left Democrats – no moderates here, please. New Hampshire plays to a completely different demographic – moderate New England. What wins in Iowa ain’t a-gonna cut it there. Then you go to a Deep South state in South Carolina, and a western state like Nevada. By the time you’ve gone through that gauntlet you have a pretty good cross section of national politics. But I would argue that we are a pretty good small size sampler for national politics.
- The smaller states allow no-name candidates without big money donors to make a name for themselves. You can win Iowa (and I assume New Hampshire) with a strong ground game, without big bucks and a huge advertising budget. If you get out there and meet people and go from town to town and have a message and raise your profile over time, you can catch fire. Oh, I’m not saying the dog catcher from Billings, Montana can show up in Iowa and get elected, but a second tier candidate can raise his profile and build a following without the big bucks that that candidates that CNN, FOX, and the other stations talk about have to have.
- If you do away with small state primaries, you are making the primary/nomination process more and more about fund-raising and less about being a good candidate. These small state primaries are the only opportunity these candidates have to be real, to meet in small groups with people.
So, in my mind, it’s not a perfect system, but I don’t think it’s that bad. Yes, the nation is putting a lot of trust in a few small states, but that is the nature of it. At church, the search committee does the work of selecting the candidate then presents him to the church for a vote. In essence (and stretching this way to its breaking point), the nation is allowing Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada to be our Search Committee. We don’t necessarily select the candidate, but we cull the list down to a few candidates from which the nation decides.
C. Are these four states the right four states?
I have no idea how this system came to be. Why are Iowa and New Hampshire first? Are we the best states? That I don’t know either. I think the Iowa GOP has become a little dysfunctional at times – with warring factions of Paulites, evangelicals, and others. But since we are evangelicals, it would likely be foolish for us to question the system. As long as Iowa is first in the nation with our caucuses, there will probably be a solidly evangelical candidate or two in the top tier of the Republican party when the process moves on the New Hampshire.
If there are going to be early primaries, there should be several guidelines. The states should be geographically diverse (and they are). They should be ideologically balanced. Don’t go to a state like Massachusetts where Democrats rule or Texas where Republicans hold all the statewide offices. It should not be a red state or a blue state but a purple state. It should be a smaller state, allowing for the “small ball” politics rather than just big-money ads and events. I realize that is self-serving, but I think there is wisdom to it. Something happens here in Iowa with the candidates that is not just about something cool for us. It is about giving the candidates a proving ground.
I think there should be a Heartland state. What one would replace Iowa? Possibly Indiana, but they are more than double our size in population, with Indianapolis and the Chicago suburbs. I’m not sure there’s a New England state that’s an improvement – New Hampshire is about as purple as those states get. I know much less about the politics of South Carolina or Nevada, so it is hard to opine.
But I do believe that there is something to be gained from allowing a few smaller states to be the guinea pigs, the search team, the proving ground for the candidates for president.