Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Caucuses for Caucasians

So here's something I don't get. The Democratic Party has spent the past several weeks playing chicken with its Florida affiliate over the Sunshine State's plan to hold their presidential primary in January. The national Dems have determined that only four states are worthy of casting ballots before the fifth day of February, and those are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Having so decreed, the party has informed Florida that any delegates selected by their outlaw primary will not be seated at the national convention.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see the D.C. Democrats stand up to anyone these days, given how often they've been rolled by the Bush administration. On the other hand, why start with Florida, a state boasting 27 electoral votes and a history of deciding the outcomes of recent presidential elections? Do the Democrats have a death wish, or are they simply tired of being competitive? Floridians will cast their ballots on the same day (January 29) as voters in South Carolina, a state that last supported a Democratic presidential nominee when John Travolta was still a Sweathog. Nevertheless, the Dems will recognize only the South Carolina results as legitimate, earning the gratitude of an electorate that is still debating exactly where—not whether—the Confederate flag should fly on the state house grounds.

Anyway, let me get to my real question. As long as the national Democrats have learned how to say no, even if it's only to one another, why can't they, at long last, say no to Iowa? Until 1976, nobody was even aware that the state had a presidential caucus, but then Iowans shocked the nation by catapulting an unknown Georgian, Jimmy Carter, to the top of a crowded field of candidates. And look how well that turned out.

First, let me say for the record that I have nothing against Iowa. I have been there several times, and I can report that it has a wonderful interstate highway, tidy motels, and dozens of clean service stations with easy freeway access. Iowa has given the world Donna Reed, Andy Williams, both Ann Landers and Dear Abby, and, in about three centuries, it is scheduled to produce Captain James T. Kirk. It even has cute little quirks, like the fact that Des Moines is not in Des Moines County. There is no place I would rather spend the long hours between Illinois and Nebraska than in the Hawkeye State. Even if I had a choice.

Having said that, there are two serious problems with opening the electoral calendar in Iowa. First, rather than simply holding a traditional primary election, the state employs a hopelessly arcane caucus system in which residents wishing to exercise the franchise must spend two or three hours at a meeting that chooses representatives to a county convention. This is, I suppose, more exciting than watching corn grow, but even Iowans have several diversions at least as enticing as sitting around someone's house talking politics until bedtime.

The result, of course, is that only the most engaged and motivated voters will actually show up on January 3, caucus day. And by engaged and motivated, I obviously mean dateless and fanatical. This wouldn't be so bad except that the national media, which knows that Chris Matthews won't shut up until somebody votes somewhere, assign enormous importance to this process, filling every Holiday Inn and Red Lobster from Bettendorf to Council Bluffs waiting for results that prove very little, but end up making a big difference. Candidacies will end because of the Iowa caucuses, while others will at least temporarily take flight.

Compounding the problem is the reality of Iowa itself. Those friendly faces you see in the Wal-Marts and Cracker Barrels are almost all white. They are also disproportionately engaged in the practice of agriculture, a vital industry to be sure, but one that has certain needs and desires that are not consistent with those of most Americans. Say what you want about New Hampshire, but its ballooning population of tax-fleeing Boston yuppies has at least given it a less parochial electorate than it once had. Iowa, on the other hand, remains as unrepresentative as ever.

Please don't take this as an argument against Middle America. An early primary in, say, Illinois or Missouri, states that mix urban and rural, agricultural and industrial, would make a great deal of sense. But it's time to tell Iowans that if they want to have extraordinary clout over American politics, they need to hire a lobbyist and buy themselves some politicians like everyone else.

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