So here we go again. A small subset (caucus goers) of a small subset (Iowans) of the American people are about to decide the fates of several candidates and significantly alter the trajectories of a few others. By this time tomorrow, we'll have our winners, our losers, and our big surprisers. Then we'll do it all over again next Tuesday in New Hampshire, after which the roster of viable candidacies will have shrunk still further.
I have already complained about the ridiculousness of making an unrepresentative state such as Iowa so prominent in our presidential selection process. I have similarly registered my objections to the use of a voting method that is so arcane and time consuming that it discourages all but the most frenzied political geeks from participating. This is simply not the way anyone with any sense would design a presidential campaign, even during years in which the stakes were relatively low. But to tolerate such a system in what may be the most important election since 1932 should stagger the mind of anyone who takes even a moment to consider the consequences.
Nevertheless, here we are and here we shall be, at least until our non-serious national news media overcomes their thirst for theater and decides to treat the Iowa Caucuses as the trivial sideshow that they actually are. Naked emperors will emerge from the corn fields tonight fully clothed by otherwise intelligent journalists who will read meaning in an unexpected fifteen percent vote share for some candidate previously given up for dead. Someone whose third-place finish will leave her (or perhaps him) out of the top spot by only about 6,000 votes will endure phrases such as "big loser" and fend off unhinged speculation about implosion and freefall. Then New Hampshirities, lacking much other guidance, will factor this mindless commentary into their own unrepresentative calculations.
The problem, in some respects, goes far beyond the annoying death grip that Iowa and New Hampshire have on the presidential selection process. More fundamental is the use of primary elections to decide party nominees at every level of government. Most Americans are unaware that the use of primaries in nearly a uniquely American phenomenon. There is no, say, Lancashire Primary in Britain, where candidates for prime minister schlep through the January cold between South Ribble, Blackpool, and Preston, scarfing down chicken dinners and pledging their undying love for the Blackburn Rovers football team. In most democratic societies, party members, often dues-payers, select their legislative standard-bearers and the elected legislators, in turn, choose their party leader.
Primary elections, in addition to providing the sort of embarrassing spectacle that we are currently witnessing in Iowa, simply burden most voters with choices that lack meaning and variety. When every contender shares the same party label, citizens lose their most important informational short-cut for making rational, sensible decisions. Since Democratic candidates all tend to share similar beliefs, and Republicans even more so, selections are made on the basis of minor and even trivial factors. From the perspective of someone not obsessing over the cable news media's coverage of the Iowa Caucuses, it should be clear that Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and even the also-rans like Biden and Richardson all view the world in a very similar way. Likewise, Rudy and Mitt and Huck and even sleepy Fred and angry Duncan fall within a very narrow range of American political philosophy. For the all the money and time spent trying to prove otherwise, the simple truth is that the policy positions of the major Democrats on the one hand, and Republicans on the other, are largely interchangeable. (Ron Paul is, of course, the major exception here.)
Therefore, we are asking Iowans and New Hampshirities to make their choices based on largely idiosyncratic criteria. This is where it all starts, all this stupidity about likeability and which candidate voters would prefer to have a beer with. Is Hillary too cold, Barack too young, Rudy too sleazy? (No, no, and yes, by the way.) Does Mike Huckabee sound more sincere than Mitt Romney? Does John Edwards—and think hard about this and weep for our democracy—actually drop four large bills on the counter after every haircut?
Even when driven by serious concerns, primary election voters are often in way over their heads. Four years ago, for example, Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats decided that they were going to put emotion and passion to the side and select the candidate most likely to beat the Republicans in November. So committed, they proceeded to select the emotionless, passionless John Kerry, who turned out not to be America's first choice for many of the same reasons that he was not the Democrats' own preferred candidate back in January and February. Primary voters tend to out-think themselves, often doing so with the help of an equally clueless, but very authoritative sounding, mass media.
I have no idea what will transpire between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers tonight. But if the past is prologue, and it usually is, we will see something like this: The third place Democratic candidate, who will have lost by a fairly narrow margin, will be treated with both pity and contempt by the national media and will immediately slip in the polls. On the GOP side, either Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney will win all the marbles based on a close finish, and the other will be said to survive only through artificial life support. The third place Republican, unlike his Democratic counterpart, will be the previously unsung hero of Des Moines and will get a significant boost going into New Hampshire. This will probably be McCain, but watch out for Fred Thompson or even Ron Paul. Speaking of Paul, he will quite possibly exceed his poll numbers; as I noted above, the caucus system favors contenders with fanatical followers and nobody's supporters are as rabid as Ron Paul's.
Then the dog and pony show will move on to New Hampshire, minus a couple of dogs and a pony or two. In a month or so, after a few more backwater states are heard from, the vast majority of Americans will finally get a chance to choose from a significantly reduced field. Every four years, we all agree (at least those of us not in the first two states) that the madness has to end. But it probably won't.
So I guess our pundit class can go ahead and book those Holiday Inn Express suites in Cedar Rapids and Muscatine for 2012. They may not be experts, but at least they stayed at a...well, you know.