So once again the nation’s politicians, backed by the media, are about to turn the caucuses of a rural state into a significant barometer for the presidential desires of an urban society. It’s a sociological case study verging on the ridiculous. I’m talking about the Iowa caucuses where Democrats and Republican candidates for the nomination will be given a leg up or down in the seemingly never ending campaign to replace Barack Obama.
The importance of this affair began in the first primary season following Watergate and it propelled an obscure former Georgia Democratic governor into a spotlight that never dimmed until he entered the White House. Never mind that it wasn’t a primary or that Jimmy Carter finished second to uncommitted. He was the first Southerner since reconstruction to have a true shot at the brass ring that is the Oval Office and as such became an instant darling of the media drones who live from one presidential election to the next.
These guys spend endless hours immersing themselves in the arcane minutia of the game and debating the potential outcomes one scenario at a time. It’s no wonder a lot of them are fans of baseball where such trivia is exalted. I’m talking about those who are the cop reporters of politics. And if you want to reproach me by saying “it takes one to know one” you would be right.
That, of course, is beside the point. What is not is that this exercise, which no more mirrors the overall American electorate than a convention of hog sellers or a circle of quilting bee enthusiasts, should not be a bell weather for choosing a candidate for the most important job in the land. In fact a serious case can be made for abandoning much of the current primary system. Perhaps overhauling it would be a better choice of words.
There is nothing uninformed about the Iowa voters. They are a highly educated, upstanding group representing an enormously important segment of our national economy. The average Iowa farmer, by the way, actually bears little resemblance to your granddad’s half or quarter section tiller of the soil. He is a much bigger operator with corporate interests. He is, however, naturally still far more concerned about the price of corn than the travails of an urban culture.
In the evolution of American presidential politics any number of systems have been exploited from the smoke filled rooms and brokered conventions to delegate selections at the state level to winner take all primaries. The importance of the primary states has risen and fallen with only New Hampshire remaining steadily so as the first state to cast its nominating ballots. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party nominee never entered a primary.
In 1972 front runner Sen. George McGovern, also from a rural state, found himself locked in a tight race in the winner take all California primary with Humphrey. When McGovern won by an eyelash, Humphrey appealed to the Democrat powers for a proportional share of the vote based on his percentage. When informed of the move, peaceable George, whose opposition to Vietnam was a key to his campaign, was so livid he almost beat his plowshare into a sword. How do I know this? I was the reporter who first told him about the maneuver. I stood back in amazement at the stream of invectives that marked his response.
California is no longer the important player it was nor are Wisconsin or Michigan and a number of others. In 1960, West Virginia was a hugely important primary in the Democratic nomination of John F. Kennedy. Today South Carolina has become an early factor, especially for Republicans.
There are those who would go back to the smoke filled rooms exclusively where, they believe, major deals are cut that better determine who has the best chance of winning in the general election. There are others who would divide the country into regional primaries with all states participating throughout the pre-convention season at different times.
Whatever the solution, if there is one, it seems obvious that to assign two highly rural states - Iowa and New Hampshire - as the initial arbiters in this vastly important process of selecting a president in a nation whose population is 80 percent urban makes little or no sense. It didn’t in 1976 and it doesn’t now.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.