Sunday, June 1, 2008

Defending the Iowa Caucuses

At the Democratic Rules Committee meeting on Saturday, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich) once again justified his state’s decision to violate party rules and move up the date of its primary by blaming Iowa and New Hampshire. He criticized the preeminent role of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in the quadrennial presidential election process, arguing, "no state should have the right to go first" during every campaign season.

Besides the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire had absolutely nothing to do with Michigan’s myopic ill-advised decision to break party rules, I believe that it is important to defend the traditional role of these first-in-the-nation presidential selection events. In particular, I want to defend Iowa’s longstanding position (since 1972) as the opening caucus state.

As a resident of Iowa for the past thirteen years, I have grown to really appreciate the special role that my adopted state plays in the presidential nomination process. As a relatively small state, it is possible for presidential candidates to visit virtually every town and meet residents face to face. Iowans are able to gather not only in large town-hall style settings to hear from the candidates, but also in medium size and small venues too.

It is truly an incredibly valuable experience for everyday folks from the heartland to converse with big-time politicos one-on-one. This kind of citizen-based empirical assessment of presidential candidates would be virtually impossible to achieve in huge states such as Michigan and Florida.

Rather than depending on the national media and endless TV commercials for sizing up the candidates, we are able to make an intelligent determination based on direct conversations and experience at the grassroots level. Large numbers of Iowans in both parties take this responsibility very seriously and begin familiarizing themselves with the candidates early in the process as a result.

Rather than simply anointing the candidate with the most name recognition (as is often the case in larger states with huge numbers of under-informed voters), Iowans often gravitate to new or even virtually unknown candidates. This is an extremely important function since our state in effect raises the national profile of candidates who otherwise might have gone unnoticed due to a lack of name recognition.

It’s been often said that Iowa lacks diversity and is therefore not a good barometer for presidential strengths and weaknesses. In pure ethnic/racial terms this is largely true, though the state’s population of Hispanics has actually more than doubled in the past decade or so.

Nonetheless, Iowa has a diverse population in many other respects. The state is almost evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants, for instance. The state is largely rural and yet also has numerous urban and suburban areas. In most communities, there is a great deal of social class differentiation that includes farmers, factory workers, middle-class professionals, college students, etc. Most importantly, Iowa is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, boding well for strong activist participation in both party caucuses.

The Iowa caucuses are in many respects anti-establishment; i.e., not simply ratifying the presumed picks of the national party apparatus. Often bucking conventional wisdom, Iowans in both parties tend to reject the initial media darlings and assorted incumbent-style front-runners. Rather, we tend to gravitate towards the best and the brightest (and most interesting) among the candidates.

Winning in the Iowa caucuses certainly does not guarantee anything – other than the fact that new names may be taken more seriously by the national press corps and electorate in succeeding presidential nominating contests around the country.

As an Obama supporter for well over a year, I was particularly proud of my fellow Democrats in the Iowa caucuses. Without Iowa as a springboard to major national recognition, Obama would have had a much more difficult time in achieving the nomination. The enthusiasm for Obama at the caucuses was incredible and certainly was pivotal in breaking the perceived lock on the nomination held previously by Hillary Clinton.

Iowa did not guarantee that Obama would win the nomination but rather assured that the national contest would indeed become competitive and not simply a coronation. Entrenched incumbents such as Senator Levin naturally fear such grassroots power, which is all the more reason to maintain Iowa’s important role in this process.