May 22, 2018
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Presidential primary system gives Iowa, New Hampshire too much power

The Republican presidential candidates are doing TV interviews, launching websites and fueling up their buses. And where are those buses headed? If the candidates are smart, towns in Iowa and New Hampshire are already circled on the map and programmed into the GPS.

As recent history has shown, the candidates who either win caucuses in Iowa or primaries in New Hampshire, or outperform expectations in those states, are vaulted into political legitimacy, which in turn earns them the donations they need to continue on the 50-state marathon that is our nomination process.

But is this good for the country? Could it be that too few people, with perspectives on key issues that are different from those of a majority of Americans, are not only determining the front-runners but also framing the debate?

The New York Times has reported that a study completed by economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff found that voters around the country changed their views of candidates who won primaries in Iowa or New Hampshire. And not only did polls in other states often change significantly after the Iowa caucuses and New Hamsphire primaries, but the new numbers tended to hold.

The data considered for the report came from the 2004 Democratic primary contest between Sen. John Kerry and Gov. Howard Dean. Sen. Kerry’s early wins were seen as surprises, and Gov. Dean’s initial lead faded. Sen. John Edwards, who placed second in Iowa, topping the front-runner Gov. Dean, also saw a boost in polls in other states.

The report concluded that a voter in Iowa or New Hampshire had the same impact on the nomination process as five Super Tuesday voters combined. In their report, published in the Journal of Political Economy, they wrote that the current system “represents a deviation from the democratic ideal of ‘one person, one vote.’”

The report considers several possible explanations for voters switching allegiance. The most likely notion is that Democrats in 2004 wanted a candidate who could defeat President George W. Bush, and if Sen. Kerry appeared more popular than their favorite, they would switch.

But the more weighty question, raised by the Times, is about the political perspectives of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Both states are more rural than urban, the Times notes, with neither having a big city. There is a high rate of health insurance for residents of each state, another factor contributing to voter bias toward issues.

And the pandering in Iowa that politicians stoop to every four years on the failed use of ethanol is an example of how that state’s voters influence policy.

Obviously, whichever states are first in the primary sequence will have out-sized influence. But the case can be made for a staggered primary schedule, perhaps with five states voting each week, which could allow different candidates to gain traction in different stages of the campaign.

There are no easy fixes to the system. But voters in Iowa should be wary of photos of Mitt Romney dressed in farmer’s overalls, and voters in the rest of the country should be wary of voters who like Mitt Romney in overalls.

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