Today, after many, seemingly endless months of campaigning, debating, attacking, debunking, and defending, actual voting begins in the 2016 presidential election.
Across Iowa, voters will gather to express their preference for whom they would like to see as their party’s nominee. This will give the state an extraordinary amount of influence over the selection of these nominees, as an unexpected victory — or a better-than-expected showing — can propel candidates to the front of the pack.
The question is, should it? That is, should Iowa play such an outsized role in the selection of both parties’ presidential candidates? How does having Iowa first in the rotation help the parties and the candidates? How does it help to build a better candidate for the general election in each party, one who truly represents the country as a whole? In short, what has Iowa done to deserve such a huge role in the process?
The simple answer is: nothing. Although Iowa may seem like an immutable part of the political landscape, in fact it is no such thing. Iowa got here simply because when the majority of states began to hold primaries and caucuses instead of simply choosing delegates at state conventions, the Hawkeye State started scheduling its caucuses first. This was no grand design by either party: Iowa went first because its caucus process was lengthy and complex, so it needed the extra time.
There are a number of reasons to reconsider the placement of Iowa on the primary calendar. First and foremost, by having Iowa and New Hampshire first, the candidates must compete in two small states that are not terribly demographically diverse. According to the 2010 census, Iowa and New Hampshire are the sixth and fourth whitest states in the country respectively, so the populations candidates face there are very different from what they’ll have to appeal to in the general election.
Fortunately, that issue is largely addressed by the calendar itself: after Iowa and New Hampshire, the next states on the docket are South Carolina and Nevada, which are much more diverse.
Of greater concern is simply having a caucus on the calendar at all this early in the process. Caucuses are quite different from primaries in a number of ways. For one, it’s harder (if not impossible) to vote absentee, even for members of the military (this is the first year that both parties have provided that option to servicemembers). If you happen to work the night shift and can’t take time off to caucus in the evening, you’re just plain out of luck.
As a result, the Iowa caucuses typically have incredibly low participation rates, much lower than most primaries. The low participation rate, aside from giving a small number of voters outsized influence on the process, raises the larger question of how much the average Iowan really cares about the caucuses. After all, if people aren’t participating, is having the first-in-the-nation caucuses really that important to the average Iowan? Or do they see it the way most of the rest of the country does: as an obscure, antiquated process dominated by the most dedicated partisans?
This country does not have a national primary and, barring radical changes to the Constitution, it is hard to imagine it ever will. However, both parties should start making serious reforms to the primary process to give more people across the country a real say in the selection of their nominees. The implementation of primaries and caucuses brought the presidential nominating process into the 20th century in the 1970s. It’s long past time we bring it into the 21st with further reforms.
In the long run, that will serve both parties — and the country as a whole — well.