Another presidential election is upon us, and two dozen Democratic hopefuls are swarming the state of Iowa like ants at a picnic, making it difficult for Iowans to go anywhere without bumping into a candidate or campaign volunteer. A similar scene unfolded four years ago, when several Republican candidates sought to schmooze their way into the hearts and minds of Hawkeye voters. Most Iowans are understandably proud of their state’s role in launching the presidential nominating process with their caucuses, but how well does theirtradition serve the rest of America in choosing nominees broadly representative of voter’s interests and concerns?
Leaders of both parties in Iowa have staunchly guarded their “first-in-the-nation” status, bristling at efforts to change things, even though the process has a poor record of picking presidents. Since 1972, 7 of 9 Democrat caucus winners, and 2 of 6 Republican winners have gone on to become their parties’ nominees, but only 1 Republican and 2 Democrat caucus victors have become president. In spite of this poor record, coming out on top in Iowa creates momentum that translates into enhanced media and voter attention, and fund-raising capacity, while a poor showing can doom a campaign from the start. Like it or not, the country is becoming more diverse every year, and bycontinuing to let Iowa launch the presidential selection processalone we’re unintentionally favoring some candidates and/or voters, while disfavoring others. Consider the following.
First, Iowa voters are more likely to be white and ruralcompared to the country overall. The state is 91% white, 4% black and 6% Latino, while the nation is 76% white, 13% black and 18% Latino. Iowa is also 55% less urban than the country atlarge. Second, caucusing is more time-consuming than voting in a primary because a) for maximum impact, voters must be present to caucus; “absentee caucusing” isn’t allowed, and b)caucuses are held in the evening, creating a barrier to those working during that time, and those who need childcare. Even though this year both parties will permit citizens to caucus via phone, there is still an advantage to being “in the room where it happens” in order to impact the outcome. Finally, compared to primaries, caucuses require a more sophisticated understanding of process in order to participate which may intimidate manyvoters into staying home. Taken together, these issues reduce the breadth and dept of voter input.
Given these concerns, it’s prudent to consider reforms that would make the presidential selection procedure more representative of the entire electorate. A simple fix would be to add one additional state primary or caucus from each of three other regions—Northeast, South, and West—to the Iowa caucus date. This lets Iowa keep some of its tradition, reduces the disproportionate impact it might have on the outcome, and enhances the legitimacy of our presidential elections.