Iowa Stubborn

Iowa is a fine state, well deserving of the attention it will receive this week as its quadrennial caucuses kick off the presidential nominating process. After all, the Hawkeye State gave us Bix Beiderbecke, the original great white jazzman, Grant Wood, the regionalist master of “American Gothic” fame, and Iowahawk, the internet’s foremost satirist. We can also attest, having slowly thumbed our way through the state several times back in our hitchhiking days, that Iowa has the brownest dirt in any of the contiguous states.

Despite such outstanding contributions, however, we don’t see any reason why Iowa should be allowed to play such an outsized role in choosing the president. The Iowa caucuses don’t always pick the winner of the nominations, and sometimes the results are wildly out of line with the rest of the country, but they invariably eliminate several candidates and boost others before any of the other 49 states have a chance to express an opinion. This time around our early preference for the Republican nomination, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, was knocked out of the race by a mere Iowa straw poll.

No state should be granted such veto power, even one so full of good folks as Iowa, because every state has at least one special interest that is at odds with the rest of the nation. In the case of Iowa it is ethanol subsidies, a boon to the state’s famous corn growers but an expensive boondoggle for the rest of us. So long as politicians are required to support this silly policy in order to become president, we’ll be stuck with it.

Iowa also selects its convention delegates by an intricate caucus system which makes voting a laborious all-day chore, meaning that candidates with a small but fanatical base of support enjoy an advantage over those with broader appeal. In past years this has led to Republican caucus victories by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee. This year it could mean a win for Ron Paul, whose laissez faire foreign policy ideas are anathema to a majority of the Republican party but a large part of his appeal to his cult-like followers.

As with so many other things that have gone wrong over the past several decades, hippies and idealism are largely to blame for Iowa’s inordinate influence on the presidential races. After the rioting and acrimony of the 1968 Democratic convention the party embarked on a new nominating process intended to eliminate the power of old-time bosses and their proverbially smoke-filled rooms, which resulted in George McGovern parlaying a strong second-place finish in the inaugural Iowa caucuses into a string of primary victories and then his party’s nomination, followed by a 49-state loss in the general election. In 1976 an all-out Iowa campaign by the little-known Jimmy Carter enabled him to finish a distant second place behind “uncommitted,” but his victory over the other actual candidates brought him enough attention to make him competitive in the following primary states, which resulted in the Carter years but nonetheless made Iowa a power-broker to this day.

Iowa’s caucuses aren’t the only thing wrong with both parties’ nominating systems, of course. New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the other states that elbowed their way into early slots on the campaign calendar are also afforded too much influence, and by the time states such as Kansas get around to voting the races are already over. A national primary would solve that problem, but create a new one by giving too much of an advantage to the best-funded candidates. Until the ideal solution is found, we can only suggest the minor change of rotating the early slots among all the states.

Iowa is a fine state, as we noted earlier, with many things to brag about, but any place that takes a liking to Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee as well as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter cannot claim superior political judgment.

— Bud Norman

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