Here we go again. In four days, the nation is going to let a state representing 7 electoral votes set the tone for the quadrennial Presidential Election process. This state is hardly representative of the nation as a whole, either. The residents of Iowa have more disposable income than the rest of us. Demographically, Iowa is less ethnically diverse, less educated and more rural than the country in general. The state’s largest city, Des Moines, is ranked 106th in total population and 98th in population density – making it more a large suburb than an actual city.
Why do we do this? Why do we allow 1.2% of the nation’s populace decide the fate of the Unites States for the next four years? I can’t think of a particularly good reason. But I can think of a particularly good way to end the charade. Have all primaries conducted on the same day.
To be clear, I am NOT advocating for federal administration of primary elections. The states have done a fine job running them. If they would rather have the circus atmosphere of a caucus than an election, fine. If they want restrictive and onerous ballot rules, okay. This is directed at the national parties, who are responsible for creating the primary schedule and have perpetrated the insanity of allowing a very non-representative portion of the population to determine their candidates for President. (After Iowa comes New Hampshire, with its four electoral votes and even less representative of the nation).
But a National Primary Day does several things to help end the confusion common to Presidential primaries. First, it effectively ends the candidacy of people with marginal appeal. Let’s face it, by focusing all of their energies on one small state, some pretty marginal people have been able to enter the national conversation based on one position – only to fade into political oblivion. Mike Huckabee won Iowa, only to become a talk show host. Pat Buchanan used Iowa to re-energize a fading career as a political pundit. Howard Dean made plenty of noise in Iowa, only to become a punch-line on late night television. This year, can anyone really imagine that the race baiting history of a Ron Paul wouldn’t be a political albatross in states with more than a 5% minority population? Or that single issue candidates Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum would be players on a national stage?
Second, having all Presidential primaries contested at the same time would require candidates to create a national political organization. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry were surprised by their inability to get on the Virginia primary ballot. Yet the underlying reason is their inability to properly organize. Gingrich can be excused, in a sense; his campaign is underfunded and was largely seen as a joke until last month (although, residing in Virginia probably means he should have understood the rules better than any other candidate). Perry, however, has oodles of money – more than anyone in the race not named Romney – and his inability is due simply to a lack of campaign oversight. Seriously, do we want a President who can’t organize well enough to ensure he’s on every state ballot? Or hire someone to do that for him? Making speeches is one thing, but ensuring the basics are attended to is an essential leadership trait. The United States federal government is a much larger enterprise than any political campaign. A candidate who can’t assume the responsibilities of Chief Executive of a political campaign certainly can’t be trusted to be the Chief Executive of the United States.
Finally, a National Primary Day ensures that every primary vote carries the same weight. The essential element is this: by giving various states an initial say in the nominating process, the citizens voting later have less input. Odds are that by the time “Super Tuesday” rolls around, the parties have already settled on a presumptive nominee. By the time I get to cast a ballot in June, the nominee has been decided – voting becomes nothing more than a pro forma exercise in civic responsibility. The effect, of course, is suppressed turnout in those states, which has dramatic effects on down ballot candidates and initiatives.
It is time to end the madness. Allowing the voters in Iowa (or New Hampshire) to have more input than voters in California (or us poor New Jerseyans) is one 19th century idea whose time has passed.