A couple weeks ago, the governing board for the Republican Party of Iowa unanimously voted to cancel the long-held Iowa straw poll. Jeff Kaufmann, Iowa GOP Chairman, recently told The Des Moines Register that there was too little interest in the straw poll from presidential contenders. He also mentioned that there were concerns about pushing contenders to compete, potentially jeopardizing Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
If that thrilling development doesn’t get you in the mood for that most magical time – the Presidential election year – I don’t know what would. Yes, it is quite nearly upon us now, first officially kicked off by the previously mentioned Iowa caucus, and the corresponding New Hampshire primary.
According to the National Journal, the date of the Iowa caucus is scheduled for Feb. 1 and 2, 2016, while New Hampshire’s primary will fall shortly after, on Feb. 9. Don’t be surprised if those dates end up being even sooner than that, however, jockeying with other states’ events to remain first in line, as Kaufmann would want to remind you.
But does the dismissal of the Iowa straw poll by the major political players signal an impending change to the Iowa caucus and early election cycle as well? And if it doesn’t – should it?
The results of these first two election cogs has a huge impact on the parties’ eventual nominations, and thereafter on the general election as a whole. The most apparent is a concept that I very much wish was less of a factor in our elections – momentum. Mark Mellman of the LA Times in his Jan. 5, 2012 article, “Iowa and New Hampshire: It’s win one or go home,” describes that this momentum forms from “two V’s: visibility and viability, both of which attract cash to a campaign. Historically, Iowa and New Hampshire account for about half the news media coverage of the entire primary season, with the winners absorbing the lion’s share of the attention.”
This potential boom-or-bust develops political strategy for candidates – often leading to impositions of somewhat-capricious results on whether to continue their campaign or abandon it. If I don’t get a top-three finish in New Hampshire, I’m shutting it down, maybe to try again in four years. Fair Vote’s Jan. 10, 2012 article, “Democracy Lost: the Iowa Caucus, the New Hampshire Primary, and the Shortchanging of American Presidential Politics,” details how big a role these two states have in winnowing the nomination field for the rest of the country, and the vast history of short-lived campaigns lain to rest by these early results.
This huge amount of influence for Iowa and New Hampshire voters is – to put it mildly – questionable. Shani Hilton of Color Lines explores some of these reasons in her Dec. 15, 2011 article, “Why (Very White) Iowa and New Hampshire Mean So Much in Politics,” citing that nearly 94 percent of New Hampshire is white, with Iowa at 91 percent, “high rates of home ownership, and low rates of poverty.” She quotes Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland professor of political science as saying that “the prominence and first-in-nation position of Iowa and New Hampshire do elevate white primary voters over non-white ones, and in both parties.”
So why is the burden (and influence) of weeding out the real contenders for the presidency placed in the hands of these two smaller states with misrepresentative populations for the rest of the country? Isn’t there a better solution?
A not-too-revolutionary solution would be to simply pick better states, as in: more representative, bigger populations, potentially key swing states. Other states (looking at you Florida) have already tried to simply move their primaries or caucuses earlier on the calendar, jumping Iowa and New Hampshire, but to no avail. Each time they move up, Iowa and New Hampshire just move up as well, with the support of the party establishments to keep the status-quo intact, which has only served to further stretch out the election process. Which brings me to my next, better, alternative:
Shorten the election cycle. Our friends in England have a similar general election, except that it lasts for a mere four weeks, instead of ours that seem to last the entire four years to the next one. Shorter elections in this country might lead to more policy-based elections.
Instead of 24-hour news outlets having to fill their schedules yelling at each other about the minutia of each candidate’s personal lives and bus tours, we would have to focus our attention on the candidates’ platform and credentials.
Instead of having time for state-by-state pandering tours, elections would hold a more unified, national focus. Our field of contenders wouldn’t be so sharply shaped by the candidates’ positions on ethanol, or whatever it is New Hampshire cares about … syrup imports I would guess. Shorter elections would cluster more caucuses and primaries together, lessening any disproportionate impact that the first ones have.
Let’s have our country’s leaders spend less time running for office, and more time leading. Let’s breathe new life into our elections and stop exhausting ourselves trying to rip through a marathon at a sprinter’s pace. Let’s find the right race, and shorten the run.
Jonathan Greig is a senior in anthropology.