Supporters watch as Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during a campaign stop at the Fainting Goat in Waverly, Iowa, Friday, December 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
On a two-day trip to New Hampshire last week I attended three campaign events with a total of roughly 600 people. I tried to find an African-American in the audience at all three events, but I couldn’t. To be fair, I did spot two Latinos and five or six Asian-Americans. The United States, according to the 2010 census, is 72.4 percent white. The first two states vote in the presidential primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire, are 91.3 percent white and 93.9 percent white, respectively.
The Iowa caucuses, which will be dramatically covered by the news media on Tuesday, are especially pernicious. In a caucus instead of a primary the Iowans who get to participate are even smaller in number and less diverse than the state’s already unrepresentative electorate.
Worse still, the Iowa caucuses aren’t subject to the same spending disclosure deadlines as primaries. An obscure 1979 ruling from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) held that Iowa’s caucus is not an election. The reasons are as muddled as they are unpersuasive. According to the FEC, primaries are elections, and caucuses are elections if they have the authority to select a candidate. Since, as a technical matter Iowans caucus for delegates to the state convention who will stand for a candidate, it’s not considered an election. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, there are organizations called Super PACs that can raise unlimited contributions to take advantage of this loophole. Politico explains, “The decades-old caucus exemption allows candidates with robust super PACs in their corners to enjoy the benefits of unprecedented spending through the early contests without enduring the potentially damaging stories that can accompany the revelation of who’s behind it.” (The information will eventually be released, but not until later.)
Up in New Hampshire I caught two events with Jon Huntsman, who has been shamelessly pandering to the state’s sense of self-importance. When Nevada threatened to move its caucuses ahead of New Hampshire, Huntsman promised to boycott Nevada and relentlessly attacked Mitt Romney for not doing so. When speaking at a New Hampshire town hall Thursday night Huntsman talked about the importance of meeting New Hampshire voters in person to win there: “I think I’ve shaken everyone’s hand at least seven times,” he joked. The next morning I watched Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, sit through a Rotary Club meeting, patiently waiting to speak. The crowd of fifty-five or so sang “Happy Birthday” to an older member, and shared announcements of their children’s college acceptance letters. “I’m not sure you’ve had a candidate as actively promoting the Granite state as I have,” Huntsman bragged. “How cool is it to be a resident of New Hampshire when the New Hampshire primary rolls around! You change history through what you do. You have a chance to see and question candidates running for highest office in the land. You are the window through which the rest of the nation gets to analyze and get to know candidates for president for the United States.” Left unexplained is why the rest of us should have to view candidates through such a small window.
When I asked Huntsman why he thinks it is in the best interest of the country as a whole that New Hampshire should have more influence in selecting our president than the rest of us Huntsman said, “It’s in the DNA of the people here. It’s the way we’ve done it for 100 years and it has served our country well.” Taken literally, these are both falsehoods. The experience of having outsized political influence is not actually embedded in genetic code, and New Hampshire hasn’t enjoyed this status for 100 years. It began in 1952.
Even figuratively, Huntsman’s argument is nonsense. If that is the best argument Huntsman could muster, it shows just how weak New Hampshire’s claim to its exalted status is. Saying that one group of people should rule over another because it has always been that way is simply undemocratic. As for presidential selection being in every New Hampshirite’s DNA, that’s an argument for monarchies and primogeniture. Being president was in George W. Bush’s DNA, and look how that turned out.
To the extent that going first seems to have given New Hampshire voters a different perspective on choosing presidents, it appears to be a worse one. Every supporter of Huntsman who I interviewed in New Hampshire cited some variation on the fact that he has spent the most time campaigning there and that they like him better in person than his opponents as a major reason for supporting him. “He’s down to earth, not some kind of machine like the others, and I know all the others,” said Warren Leary, who serves as sergeant-at-arms for the New Hampshire legislature. Leary proudly noted that Mitt Romney lives just down the road from Wolfeboro. “You mean his country house?” I asked. “Well, his country house, but he’s been there most nights of the week for the last two years,” said Leary. That’s not because Romney decided he’d rather spend his winters in New Hampshire than, say, Hawaii. It’s because Romney has been forced to spend an inordinate amount of time campaigning in New Hampshire since he began running for president.
“This is the way campaigning in New Hampshire used to be, just hanging out with the candidates,” approvingly noted Linda Frawley, a Huntsman volunteer. I asked Leary why it’s in the best interest of other states for New Hampshire to always vote ahead of them. Leary seemed not to understand the question, even though I posed it several times. He started to tell me why it’s good for New Hampshire’s economy. That’s obvious: it forces people like me to come spend money on hotels and restaurants there. It’s ironic that New Hampshire’s self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives are so enamored of a scheme to suck money away from other states through national political clout.
How, exactly, is spending the most time kibitzing with a small, racially homogeneous group of people a more important qualification for the presidency than the metrics voters in other states would use to judge the candidates? In fact, it’s worse. And it’s only made possible by the fact that New Hampshire residents are so spoiled they think spending the most time talking to them personally or being the most likable in person matters. No one in California could possibly have such an expectation, even if it went first every four years. If we had a fair system where all states vote at once or the states that go first rotated, no state would get in the habit of being so pampered.
Jon Huntsman’s advocates say he skipped Iowa because you cannot win Iowa unless you support the ethanol subsidies boondoggle. Huntsman, to his credit, opposes market-distorting subsidies, including those for ethanol. But Iowans and the candidates who come every four years to seek their support all make exactly the same claim Huntsman makes about New Hampshire: that their privileged status gives them a special ability to choose the most qualified presidential candidate. If that were true, then a selfish parochial concern such as ethanol subsidies wouldn’t determine whom they support.
In fact, Iowans are no better than the voters of any other state. Iowa’s political power brokers, just like New Hampshire’s, are notorious for demanding that experienced statesmen seeking the presidency suck up to them personally. And are average Iowans really more knowledgeable or sophisticated in analyzing politics or policy? Well, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein tweeted on Friday that an Iowan at a Ron Paul rally “tells me his biggest issue is cutting entitlement spending, ‘just not Medicare or Social Security.’ ” Why not those two programs? Because, he told Klein, he gets benefits from them. Naturally.
To the extent that running for president is supposed to educate the future incumbent about the issues she will face, is talking to these voters more edifying than say, being interviewed by better-informed national reporters? On Sunday Huntsman boasted of having completed 143 events in New Hampshire. In Iowa Michele Bachmann will visit all ninety-nine counties while Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich conduct two-week tours. Is this preparing them to negotiate nuclear treaties?
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein argues that New Hampshire and Iowa get to anoint the final few contenders and reject the also-rans because of the way the media covers them. “This isn't really Iowa's fault,” Klein writes. “They're insistent on going first, but their caucus only matters so much because we in the media nationalize it—and the importance of its results—so aggressively.” That’s half true. It’s the national media’s fault that they breathlessly cover every detail in Iowa and New Hampshire instead of just treating them as small states that allocate a tiny proportion of the delegates needed to win a nomination. But it’s also Iowa’s fault for insisting on going first. Most other states simply don’t do so.
There are definitely members of the media who fetishize Iowa and New Hampshire. Knowing the voting habits of the residents of Wapello County, Iowa, is a veteran’s advantage that they will lose if Iowa stopped being so important. Reporting on Iowa’s obscure power brokers is the kind of process story that cannot possibly be accused of partisanship. That’s the kind of story mainstream political reporters like.
But there are probably more than a few members of the media who would much rather travel to states with better food and warmer weather in December and January. They cover Iowa and New Hampshire because they have to. If they don’t, they won’t be relevant. If everyone in the media agreed to collectively ignore Iowa and New Hampshire, but those states still went first, it would create a prisoner’s dilemma. Everyone would be better off if no one defected, but the biggest individual benefit goes to a defector.
Ultimately the entities that have to put a stop to this madness are the national Democratic and Republican parties. When states try to move their primaries up they get smacked into place by the national parties. In 2008 when Michigan and Florida—states with considerably larger, more representative populations than Iowa and New Hampshire—pushed their primaries forward, the DNC threatened not to seat their delegations. Ultimately they were seated but with only half a vote each.
The Democratic and Republican National Committees should use this power to create a system that’s fair to the country as a whole. They could make a larger, more diverse state such as California go first. They could rotate which state goes first, or they could hold a one-day national primary. Any state that doesn’t comply wouldn’t get its delegates seated at the convention. Whatever schedule they create, it couldn’t possibly be more inane than the status quo.