The Myth of the Rational Iowa Voter

In the past week or so, lots of wise and serious commentators have started to say that Hillary Clinton's victory in the Democratic presidential primaries is all but inevitable. She is repeatedly described as having "solidified her lead" (see here, or here, or here), not only because of her strength in national polls, but due to the fact that she now leads in New Hampshire by a healthy margin and is in a virtual three-way tie in Iowa. And after all, we know Iowa and New Hampshire voters aren't fickle like those in some other states. They're serious and studious, applying their down-home common sense and refusing to vote for anyone unless they look them in the eye and get a sense of the person behind the politician.

It seems like just yesterday that the reporters and pundits who live for the quadrennial marathon of pandering and debasement that is the campaign for the White House were complaining that things were starting way too early. The first primary contests were over a year away, they groaned, yet the candidates were already tromping through the early states, forcing themselves upon us like dinner party guests who show up at noon when the table isn't set and the food is half-cooked. Yet now that some actual votes are but a few months away, reporters are ready to declare the race all but over.

If there is any consolation, we are told, it is that the wise and deliberative citizens of the early states take their responsibilities so seriously. But do they really? And if they don't, what does that say about the way we're choosing the next leader of the free world?

Since the 1972 elections, the first presidential race run according to campaign reforms intended to take the nominating process out of the hands of cigar-chomping party hacks and deliver it to the voters, we have all been electoral subjects, living under the tyranny of New Hampshire and, even more so, Iowa. And despite the unprecedented sums being raised this year, which would in theory enable candidates to compete in many more places, everyone seems to believe it's truer than ever that Iowa makes all the difference.

Smart campaign handicappers know the scenarios well by now. If John Edwards wins Iowa and Hillary Clinton comes in second, the race will be between those two, with Barack Obama forced to close up shop. If Edwards doesn't win Iowa, he's done. If Clinton wins Iowa, the nomination is hers. Even some of the campaigns have acknowledged as much. "If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it's just a dream," said Michelle Obama. "Iowa -- that's the whole shebang!" Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe told Michael Crowley of The New Republic. "I guess I'm not supposed to say that," he immediately added. And Joe Trippi, Edwards' chief strategist, said, "I'm not going to kid anybody, not winning Iowa would severely diminish our ability to whoosh out."

This kind of candor from campaign insiders is unusual; one expects them to at least claim that they have a path to victory no matter what happens on caucus night. What no one involved in any campaign will acknowledge, and few commentators will either, is that this system is not merely curious or even unfair, it is utterly perverse. This isn't just because the rest of us get virtually no say in who the parties' nominees are. It's also because of this simple fact: No small group of Americans deserves this power, but if any does, it sure isn't the citizens of Iowa.

As you read this, some of the most important and powerful people in America are crawling through the Hawkeye State on their knees, pretending to know more than they do about corn, pretending that the deep fried Twinkie they had back at the state fair was just dee-licious, pretending that ethanol is the key to our energy future, and pretending that every precinct captain and PTA chair they meet is the very heart and soul of our nation, whose opinions the candidate is just dying to hear. And the good people of Iowa? They couldn't give a rat's ass.

If this is a typical election, somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of voting-eligible Iowans will bother to show up to a caucus. Yes, you read that right. Those vaunted Iowa voters are so concerned about the issues, so involved in the political process, so serious about their solemn deliberative responsibilities as guardians of the first-in-the-nation contest, that nine out of ten can't manage to haul their butts down to the junior high on caucus night. One might protest that caucusing is hard -- it requires hours of time and a complicated sequence of standing in corners, raising hands, and trading votes (here is an explanation of the ridiculousness). But so what? If ten presidential candidates personally came to your house to beg for your vote, wouldn't you set aside an evening when decision time finally came?

But only one in ten Iowans can be bothered. Not only that, despite all the attention, Iowans know barely more about the candidates than citizens of other states, and don't discuss politics any more than anyone else (unless something has changed since this research was conducted in 2000). Yet around 200,000 of them, possessed of no greater wisdom or insight than the rest of us, will determine who presides over this nation of 300 million for the next four years. The problem isn't that Iowans aren't like the rest of the country (95 percent white, for one). The problem is that despite the extraordinary privilege of having the next president grovel before them, they're just as indifferent and apathetic as any other group of Americans.

But what about New Hampshire, where those ornery Yankees with their independent spirit stand waiting to upend all our assumptions about the presidential race? Don't hold your breath. If nothing else, unlike Iowans, they have the good grace to find their way to the polls, at least to a degree. New Hampshire turnout in the 2004 primary was under 30 percent; in 2000, when both parties had contested primaries, it hit 44 percent. (Figures on primary turnout in the last two elections can be found here.) But only three times since the current nomination system took effect in 1972, and only once in the last 20 years, has the New Hampshire winner in either party not been the man who placed either first or second in the Iowa caucus a week before (in 1988, George Bush won New Hampshire despite having finished third behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in Iowa, while on the Democratic side, New Hampshire winner Michael Dukakis had placed third in Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire in 2000 after not competing in Iowa). Despite all that time sipping cocoa with candidates around a living room fire in frozen December and January, the New Hampshire voters don't stray far from what their Midwestern brethren have decided.

All right, you say, why should the rest of us care? Couldn't the other 98 percent of Americans simply rise up and proclaim that they intend to make their own decisions? No one is forced to have their primary vote determined by what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, after all.

But while we are not literally forced, the imperious campaign press will do all it can to coerce us into narrowing our choices. Like Roman emperors glaring contemptuously at a collection of wounded gladiators, then turning their thumbs down as the crowd roars its assent to the execution, they will pronounce candidates dead on the judgment of a few thousand Iowans. No appeals to mercy or reason will be allowed once the judgment is rendered. They will spend a day or two describing the demise of the candidates who came in third and fourth, then ignore them completely as though they no longer exist. Technically, you could still vote for them in your primary, but any choice other than the two candidates the press proclaims to still be viable, they will tell you, is as pointless as walking into a Starbucks and asking for a cup of Postum.

And so once again, the self-fulfilling prophecies of the Iowa caucuses will come to pass, as though it seemed inevitable all along. That hardly means Clinton is guaranteed to be the nominee; after all, right now the Iowa race couldn't be closer. And things can change quickly; less than a week before the 2004 caucuses, a Gallup press release averred, "the contest for the Democratic nomination right now is becoming more of a two-man race between [Howard] Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark." (Dean, you'll recall, not only came in third in Iowa but then was heard to say "Yee-haw," which of course meant that he was utterly insane and no reasonable person could possibly vote for him.)

So though we might not be able to predict what the Iowa results will be, we can say with relative certainty what will happen after. The press corps will invest those results with titanic meaning and import, and we voters will select from our remaining pre-approved choices, one of whom, on each side, will become his or her party's nominee. Yet again, it will feel to all but a few Americans like a process in which they played no part. And they'll be right.

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