January 25, 2008

defending the caucus

There's no way at all to argue that Iowa and New Hampshire accurately represent the country. They're both pretty much entirely white, they're small, there's not a single major city in either one. The Iowa caucus process shuts out anyone without transportation, childcare, or a schedule flexible enough to take a night off. And yet those few voters who are eligible to caucus in Iowa and vote in New Hampshire have a wholly disproportionate effect on the presidential nomination.

I still think there are good reasons to have those two states go first. All you have to do is look at the race now: Clinton and Obama are doing national media buys, spending $2 million a week to raise their profiles in 30-second sound bites; the rest of our candidate access is debates and whatever free media gets generated by manufactured controversies and horse-race journalism. That's what a national primary would look like, but all the time.

Because Iowa and New Hampshire are small and have no major cities, politics works differently. You hear about retail politics: what that means is that if you want to succeed in Iowa (and New Hampshire, as far as I know) you have to make your case to small groups of people at a time and actually answer their questions. My brother, who has decided that it was a priority for him to personally interact with candidates, has seen all the major Democratic candidates, asked a number of them questions, and met many other people who have had the same experience, not to mention reading eight or so months of constant local news coverage that described the candidates making their pitch to small groups of people and answering their questions.

Personally, I think that having this element to the campaign is invaluable. Anyone who wants to, anywhere the country, gets to watch news coverage of candidates actually interacting with actual people. You can't buy success in Iowa and New Hampshire, as Romney learned by trying to; you have to convince people a bit at a time. People might be dumb, and they might make dumb decisions, but that's democracy. At least these decisions are substantially less mediated by money than they would be in any large state, and certainly in a national primary. The big problem with our quasi-national Feb. 5 primary this year is that it costs; the only way to make that worse is to cut out the smaller early states, which at least provide a greater diversity of required campaign attributes.

Why specifically Iowa and New Hampshire? Because that's how it's set up. I can't bring myself to care much that it means that some people have more influence on the political process than others. Some people always have more influence on the political process than others. At least in the early caucus/primary system it's not only the wealthy who have more influence.


Andrew said...

I agree, but also (vehemently) disagree. A single national primary has the problems you point out: cost, a lack of retail politics...it would just be unfair in a different way. But it has always seemed exceedingly unfair to me that Iowa and New Hampshire, completely arbitrarily, are the only ones who get to examine the candidates closely. It ticks me off every time a candidate drops out of the race after a poor showing in one or two completely unrepresentative states, before I have the chance to cast my vote for or against him or her.

The best idea I've heard or come up with is a rolling regional primary. Divide the country into a number of regions (5 or 10 or something), probably by state, maybe balancing delagate counts or electoral votes or something. Geographic continuity is important, obviously. Then hold a regional primary each week for 5 or 10 or whatever weeks in a row. Change the order of the regions for every election. Such a system would allow candidates to focus on one region at a time (which is cheaper than flying all the hell over the country), give each region a turn to grill candidates retail style, give each region a turn to be the one whose vote doesn't matter 'cause campaigns have already collected enough electoral votes or run out of money.

Laurel said...

That's a really good idea, and I hadn't thought of it. On the other hand, it suffers from the same problem as something like instant run-off voting: it's a really good idea, but there's a big institutional block to changing a system in such a systematic way. If my choices are Iowa/New Hampshire or a national primary, I'll take Iowa/New Hampshire. If a rolling regional primary manages to become an option, I'd take that.

I'd argue that you should space the regional primaries 2 weeks apart if you want to get the most retail politics and candidate involvement in all regions; that'd be expensive, but not much more so than the current set up.

Finally, I don't think the candidates who dropped out were going to do all that well nationally. There's a viable strategy of losing Iowa and New Hampshire (think Bill Clinton) and coming back strong immediately afterward, but you have to be doing well in other states; also, the current ultra-compressed schedule works against it, because you have fewer other contests to win that give you free media before the de facto national primary.

Andrew said...

Actually, I think changing the primary faces much less structural resistance than instant run-off voting (which I also support): the structure of primaries is up to the parties, both nationally and at the state level. Instant run-off, proportional representation multi-member districts, etc, would require constitutional amendments, which ain't gonna happen.

My Pennsylvanian aunt recently informed me that PA's primary isn't until April. PA is a swing state with a lot of electoral votes (and, arguably, more representative than many states), but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the nominee were determined by April. If I were registered in PA, that would piss me off something fierce.

As for the specific details of the rolling regional primary scheme, I'm uncommitted--2 weeks sounds fine to me, but whatever best implements the intention.