Commentary Magazine


The Problem With Iowa and New Hampshire

Dave Leonhardt sounds a familiar complaint in his column in today’s New York Times: the disproportionate influence of voters in New Hampshire and Iowa on the question of who is elected president. But his argument is no less cogent for being both ancient and futile.

The unfairness of allowing Iowa and New Hampshire to go first and thus set the tone for the nomination contests is so obvious that it almost doesn’t need to be said. The other states that vote or caucus in January and early February have some say about the ultimate outcome, but none as much as those two since aspiring presidents spend most of the previous year camping out in them and largely pandering to their parochial interests. The willingness of so many to support federal subsidies for ethanol production, a boondoggle that benefits Iowa farmers, is merely the most obvious evidence of the absurdity of the system.

But there is more to this than ethanol. Leonhardt discusses the various economic implications (it is bad for cities since none of the early states are urban) of this system. The bigger issue is one of pure democracy. The nominating system is set up in such a way as to allow the major contenders to be sorted out from the also-rans in the early states and then have the issue decided among them by Super Tuesday. The design is no accident. The parties want the contest over early enough so that whoever has emerged from this convoluted process as the winner has time to raise money and unite their party before the nominating conventions at the end of the summer and then the fall campaign.

That makes sense for them but not for the country since outside of the unlikely prospect of a long-drawn out primary battle (the Obama-Clinton fight lasted until late in the spring but that was only because it took the latter who came into 2008 as the overwhelming favorite more time to accept the inevitable than most contenders require), the outcome will be decided long before the majority of Americans have a change to vote in a primary.

But complaints such as these are futile. The political class knows how to game this system and fears changes that might produce results they can’t anticipate.

It would take the combined efforts of both parties and their leaders to get rid of this antiquated and absurd system. But since anyone who wants to be president or would like to stay in the Oval Office doesn’t dare cross Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s hard to see how it will ever happen.