The Case for Ignoring Iowa

The caucuses are the most overrated, unrepresentative aspect of the 2012 presidential campaign. Michelle Cottle makes the case for ignoring the state.

Just a few hours to go, and the excitement is almost unbearable! By this time tomorrow, the first votes in the 2012 Republican presidential race will have been tallied and we the people can get back to the vital business of ignoring the state of Iowa.

I know. I know. It’s a cliché to complain about Iowa’s first-in-the-nation voting status. Counterintuitive political types go so far as to scrounge up arguments for why it isn’t, in fact, a travesty to allow an unrepresentative state with a convoluted voting process to grab so much attention, enjoy such atrocious political ass-kissing (Ethanol subsidies? Come on!), and have such a disproportionate influence on the selection of our commander in chief. But such grasping is nothing but nonsense. Of course the Iowa caucuses are a horrible idea, and the persistent pandering by both parties is an enduring indicator that our entire primary system is FUBAR.

Forget for a minute that Iowa is too rural and way too white (91 percent Caucasian) to represent today’s America. Plenty of states aren’t exactly multicultural melting pots, including New Hampshire. But, unlike Iowa, New Hampshire at least casts its votes via a primary, which leads to a much higher level of participation than the insane caucus process. Let the record show that in the 2008 GOP race, 54 percent of New Hampshirites had their votes tallied compared to 16 percent of Iowans; in 2004, the numbers were 30 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Also, particularly in an election like this one, where so many voters still claim to be undecided (around 40 percent according to recent polls), should we really be rooting for a system in which people’s final decision will be made largely based on what their most outspoken neighbors have to say during a two-hour navel-gazing session? Honestly. After all these months of candidates trooping all over the state, smooching babies and scarfing down all manner of fried foods on sticks, it’s going to come down to whose backers are the smoothest—or perhaps just most aggressive—talkers tonight? That’s how to hook up in a bar. It’s no way to pick a president.

The more sensible move would be to bar anyone from caucusing who hasn’t made up his or her mind by now. The media love to fetishize undecided voters as oh-so-deliberative, but the truth more closely resembles this headline on today’s Atlantic Wire: “If You’re Still an Undecided Iowa Voter, You’re Either Dumb or Lying.”

And let’s please stop pretending that caucusgoers are some special breed of political sages. Yes, they are politically active. (Who else would be willing to endure icy roads and frigid winds to sit around in some school basement on a Tuesday evening debating platform language and electing delegates?) But many of tonight’s last-minute pitches won’t be much more politically trenchant than your average episode of Jersey Shore (or maybe The Apprentice, seeing as how the Donald still fancies himself a live possibility in this race). Back in 2000, for instance, the arguments for George W. Bush in the caucus I sat in on pretty much all boiled down to: he seems like such a nice guy.

But here’s the real kick in the crotch, for the candidates at least: As often as not, Iowans are wrong. Since 1980, the state caucus contest has managed to pick two winners (Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000), while championing Mike Huckabee over John McCain in 2008, Dole over Bush pere in 1988, and (gasp!) Poppy over Reagan in 1980. All that money and time and indigestion and sucking up to corn farmers, and you probably won’t win the nomination anyway.

Strategically speaking, candidates might be better served focusing on the fine voters of South Carolina, who have backed the ultimate GOP nominee in every election since 1980. Sure, the state is one of the most conservative in the nation, and candidates would still have to grapple with onerous culinary duties and parochial issues. But at least its voting process isn’t ridiculous. There are more than a handful of minorities actually living there. And the weather is a damn sight better this time of year.