With the Ames Straw Poll today and the first seemingly important vote of the election season here, the proving grounds of Iowa are again the focus of the political world. But why Iowa? Heartland as it is, the state is not the most representative in the union, at the very least on economic terms, and that fact has had major political implications. The most visible example stretches wide across the state's farmland. The business of Iowa is corn and accepted knowledge in Washington says that the influential corn subsidies would not exist today if the Iowa caucuses simply came later in the calendar.
Of course, the straw poll isn't a real election. Far from it. The event is a fundraising stunt that measures at best the 'strength of a campaign' and at worst the self-serving capture of journalists that political Iowa has accomplished. The great New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza wrote a recent blog post on Ames that lays out the straw poll's true relevance, namely, little.
Nonetheless, it begs the question: If shenanigans like the straw poll come from the entrenched political elite in an unrepresentative state like Iowa, why does it get to come first at all?
WHY IOWA VOTES FIRST
Well, no one ever really planned it. As Slate explains in a concise article, Iowa moved their caucus date in the 1960s simply for the sake of getting ready for the conventions. Politicians from George McGovern onward have recognized the value of making their early victory or surprise turnout the only news in the weeks before other votes. Iowa happily obliged this advantage and passed a law requiring that their vote precede any other state caucus or primary by eight days. Ultimately though, Iowa is important for its media value rather than its convention delegates.
In that sense then, the Ames Straw Poll is quintessentially Iowan. Such a cynical media exercise couldn't be more true to the caucuses because the flaws of Ames are also the flaws of Iowa.
With these criticisms, calls to anoint another primary kingmaker arise every four years when images of candidates shaking hands in Iowa diners and cornfields appear on television. Politicians choose to emphasize or downplay the significance of Iowa as their electoral strategy dictates. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in particular have done little campaigning in Iowa and prefer instead to promote the New Hampshire primary as the nation's first true test. As a result, the discussion of Iowa's first place in line often turns on who it benefits more. With the state's outsized influence on presidential politics, the question has tremendous importance to our elected leaders and our direction as a nation.
WHO IOWA HELPS MOST
As a caucus, the advantage (or disadvantage) of Iowa must be seen in light of the general election. Success in the state propels campaigns forward and may come about for a number of reasons, but viability and success in the general is the true measure of value. By this measure, Iowa helps one party in particular: Democrats.
Oddly enough, Iowa's conservatism is the reason for this advantage. Because candidates that win the presidency must occupy the political middle to attract independents and a broad base of voters, the challenge in any primary is to win the nomination without moving too far from the center. By nominating a candidate too left or right for the general, or by compelling more centrist candidates to adopt partisan orthodoxy, the parties risk undermining their general election chances. The 2010 midterms certainly showed that pitfall, most notably in the Nevada and Delaware Senate races.
Of the declared Republican candidates, Romney and Huntsman look the most viable for a general as Pawlenty's appeal stagnates, but they're also the two major candidates most prominently skipping Iowa. Both men are less orthodox than nearly all their opponents given their support of climate science, a debt compromise, and other notions anathema to much of the Republican field. During the last election, the two front-runners at the time, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, themselves fairly centrist for the field, also largely avoided Iowa.
All in all, with Iowa Republicans further right than Iowa Democrats are left, the contest's position gives Democrats the greater likelihood of nominating a centrist, and therefore better chances in the general election. While this distinction is apparent in some candidates' campaign paths, the Iowa political machine of both parties has a deep foundation across the state. Changing the date of the Iowa caucus to downplay its importance would be a difficult transition. Nonetheless, Republicans would do well to consider a move while Democrats benefit from holding the Iowa media carnival in place. A centrist Democrat named Barack Obama in fact owes much of his political fortune to a surprise win in Iowa when the state looked split three ways. Say what you will about the caucuses, Obama's nomination there was a key moment for his candidacy and Democrats certainly didn't hurt having his name on the ballot that November.
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