Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes is all that separates my home in Nebraska from the momentary epicenter of the political world, Iowa.
Iowa’s caucus is the first contest between the parities’ candidates for president. The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, home to the first state primary, have disproportionate power in choosing the candidates for president.
We didn’t always have a primary system. In the old days, the heads of the parties would get together in cigar smoke-filled rooms at the party conventions and pick a candidate.
By the 1970s, more and more states were choosing to hold primaries as a way to pick delegates, who, in turn, go to the conventions and vote for the nominee. Now, nearly every state holds a primary. In theory, primaries should be a democratic process by which candidates are chosen, but this isn’t the case.
It is true that eventually every state gets to vote. On paper, the early states get no more delegates than later states do. It’s clear, however, that a few Iowans and New Hamshirites have more say than all the Nebraskans you could count.
Our primary system acts as spring training for potential presidential candidates. The first couple of primaries are tests to see how good the candidates would be as nominees. The nation shrinks to a handful of states – and, this year, Washington, D.C., which has moved up its primary to a week before the Iowa caucus.) The District did this in order to bring attention to its lack of voting representation in congress.
The nomination process is set up exactly like the final race for the White House. Debates are held, donors are sought, hands are shaken; just like they would be if there were only two candidates, one from each party, in the race. This is an advantage over choosing a nominee in a dark room – the party gets to see their potential nominees in action.
In statistics, when a population is too large to find the mean, a sample is taken. From the sample, statisticians can approximate what the population mean would be. The primaries work in the same way.
A national primary would work to the advantage of an incumbent president. The other party’s candidates would have to scramble all over the country, instead of focusing on a few states. They would have to spend massive amounts of campaign donations to secure votes, while an uncontested president is an automatic nominee. So the few states with early primaries serve as the sample.
The idea is that the winner of the early primaries would have been the winner in a national primary. In some cases, this can produce a skewed sample.
As an example of how skewed this race is, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Howard Dean of Vermont all have inherent advantages over their rivals just because of where they are from – their bases of support are close to the first contests.
Locality is a big advantage in getting name recognition, gaining supporters and setting up an effective campaign in a certain state. Gephardt, who is polling low nationally (tied for fifth in the most recent Zogby poll), still has a chance because of the Iowa Caucus. If, instead, it were the Oregon Caucus, Gephardt’s run would have been as noticeable as a political science major walking around GW. Conversely, if Florida or Georgia were the first primary, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida would not have dropped out yet.
The addition of D.C. into the first couple of contests is positive. Iowa and New Hampshire are nice places, but they are hardly representative of the nation as a whole. Between them, the largest city is Des Moines, Iowa, population 200,000.
When statisticians choose samples, they do so randomly. The parties should adopt this model for the primary system. Dates would be chosen for primaries, and then, by lottery system, states would be assigned to one of those dates. This would stop Iowa and New Hampshire from always having first say, and it would stop states’ desire to move up their primaries in order to be more important; thus, drawing out the presidential campaign even longer.
By the time I get to cast my first ballot May 11, by absentee, the nominee will have already been chosen, as they always are for Nebraskans. Any way the parties try to choose their candidates is imperfect, but truthfully, the current primary system is more democratic than the previous one. It does, however, need to be tweaked so more voters have a say in the outcome. Until then, I, like many other Nebraskans, will be left to look longingly across the Missouri at those lucky Iowans who have so much clout, 20 minutes away.
-The writer is a freshman majoring in political science.