Friday, December 9, 2011


In August Michelle Bachmann won the Iowa Republican presidential nomination “straw poll”.  Political commentators and media pundits were effusive while bestowing on her the “front runner” label. Howard Fineman, then of Newsweek and currently of the Huffington Post, advised candidate Newt Gingrich, now leading polls in Iowa and nationally, to quit the race after only winning 385 of the 16,674 votes cast, and because of her status of “front runner”, Bachmann appeared on all five of the Sunday morning political talk shows after the poll. This is because it has long been part of the media's political lore that the winner of the Iowa caucuses, which follow the straw poll five months later, and are the nation's first nominee selection process, has a major advantage in subsequent contests.

While it is understandable, though unfortunate, that the news hungry media inflates the importance of this early exercise, in reality it makes no sense. A few statistics show why.
Iowa has a total population of approximately 3 million or about 1.1 times the size of the city of Chicago. It is 91.3% white and 38.9% live in rural areas. An estimated 37%-40% of Republican voters in Iowa self identify as religious evangelicals. This pushes the political debate and campaign style of the candidates away from the most important issues and towards the so called “social” or “value” issues on which the president has little influence (abortion; gay marriage; school prayer; evolution). 

In 2008, John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee, won just 13.1% of the total 118,696 Republican caucus votes cast in January of that year. Clearly Iowa voters are in no way representative of the national electorate.
“Judd Saul, founder of the Cedar Valley Tea Party who considers himself a member of the Christian right said he was more concerned with “values than perceived electability”. "We live in a society where everyone judges talent. We sit in our living rooms and watch American Idol, and we become a society that judges what is talent," he said. "We're looking at people for the wrong principals."

In other words he thinks competency for the most important political position in the world should be subordinate to the personal values of the voter. He said he was not alone in his beliefs. "The really hardcore right is hardcore Santorum," he said.

Recently the Rev. Cary K. Gordon, a Sioux City evangelical leader who was prominent in the defeat of three Iowa Supreme Court justices over gay marriage, endorsed Rick Santorum. Santorum's appeal is almost entirely based on his inflexible opposition to abortion under any circumstances. Santorum is currently polling in Iowa at 5.1% and nationally at 3.3%. While this is not significant, the three most socially conservative candidates who brandish their fundamentalist religious views in Iowa as campaign strategies, Santorum, Bachmann and Perry, all in single digits individually, are polling at a collective 21% of the vote thus distorting the process. A November New York Times/CBS poll of Iowa's evangelicals found that only 10% of would consider voting for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for no other reason than he is a Mormon, a religion that Mormons themselves say is a Christian belief system. These intolerant voters are either ignorant of, or choose to ignore, the fact that there are currently six Mormons serving in the U.S. Senate and nine Mormons serving in the US. House of Representatives from both parties, all with no apparent negative effect on the quality of their service or the moral character of the nation. Outside Iowa, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 75 percent of Republicans nationwide said “it does not matter one way or another if a candidate for president is a Mormon”. This is another indication that the Iowa caucuses have diminished relevance to the national election in November where voters are more concerned with economic issues and the intelligence, knowledge and leadership qualities of the candidates. 

Even current front runner, Newt Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, who has lead what some observers might describe as a “secular” lifestyle, has felt compelled to join the anti-abortion, anti- gay rights campaign style. Gingrich now says that “marriage should be between a man and a woman”, or in Gingrich's case, three women. 

The situation in New Hampshire doesn't get much better. While a more secular state, New Hampshire has the nation's first primary (vs. caucus). The importance of a win or second place showing in New Hampshire is a well established but nonsensical fact. The population of New Hampshire is approximately 1,316,000 or just 44% of Iowa's. It is 93% white and only 18% of the population reside in the three cities with populations over 30,000. New Hampshire is a really nice place to visit but as a tiny rural enclave it's role in the presidential primary selection process is clearly over emphasized.

It has been a common observation among the punditocracy that wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and a strong showing in South Carolina by any candidate means that the nomination battle “is over”. Even if those were the actual results for one of the candidates, and might indeed shift momentum and money raising efforts, it would at best be a self fulfilling prophecy and at worst a major distortion of the electoral process. The marathon primary battle in 2008 between Obama and Hillary Clinton, while it did not follow this scenario, showed the importance of the voters in the later primaries.
In their race to be “important” by staging early contests, the four states with January caucuses or primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida) select only 115 total delegates out of the total of 2,066 who cast votes at the Republican convention in August. The idea that three of these or even all four should decide the nominee even if one candidate wins all, is ridiculous.
The primary process lasts until June 26th when Utah has the final primary. Eleven states have primaries on March 6th and the four largest states (Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, California) with a total of 494 delegates or 23.9% of the total, have primaries from March 6th to June 5th

The “horse race” competition created by the media and the pandering to small under-representative constituencies to the possible exclusion of large numbers voters in other states could be eliminated by establishing a single, nation wide primary/caucus date. This procedure works well in some Western European nations and by scheduling such a primary in the Spring or early Summer, it would provide plenty of time for candidates to be thoroughly vetted and avoid the wasting of resources by over spending in the early states with single issue or non-typical constituencies.

It would also open the process to credible candidates who don't appeal to narrow constituencies in the current early primary states or because of low initial name identification, need more time to develop support. Current candidate John Huntsman falls into this category and several other credible Republicans including New Jersey Governor Chris Christy, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour might well have taken a serious look if they felt the campaign would be an appeal to voters nation wide.

Primaries and caucuses are essentially the “property” of state party committees and any effort to persuade them to join a single national primary would be difficult, especially in those states who somehow see some kind of prestige in being “first” or “early”. But some progress was made in this direction by the establishment of the so called “super Tuesday” primaries conducted by eleven states on March 6th of 2012. It would be a significant improvement to the important presidential selection process to diminish the influence of the pundits, press and small and early states and allow full participation in the nominating process by the same voters who will select the President.

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