Every presidential primary season, one hears a litany of complaints about the unfairness of the process: reform is needed; it’s all about the money; the calendar is unbalanced; it’s too long; it’s too short; some states are favored; others ignored.
But let’s take up one point that really galls many national media-types. They hate the prominence given to Iowa. In their view, it’s a state unworthy of the attention it gets. It’s too small, too rural, too far from major cities, and nothing like the East or West Coasts. It isn’t even southern, so the reporters can’t make fun of the accents. My response is, God bless Iowa.
Sure, televised debates are terrific about putting the presidential candidates through their paces. But it’s Iowa that forces its suitors to scamper about in the cold, doing up-close retail indoor politics with regular people – ones, who unlike Diane Sawyer, aren’t primarily focused on gay life style issues.
Look at how this season’s Iowa caucuses turned out. Rick Santorum, who was barely noticed by debate moderators, managed to defeat the heavily financed front-running Mitt Romney. As it turned out, it wasn’t all about the money or the television coverage – there was a need for real campaigning. One couldn’t expect to win simply by buying up all the media advertising time. No, a candidate had to go through the painstaking process of organizing his supporters on a county by county basis. Thousands of people had to be persuaded on an individual basis to support a particular candidate by coming out on a dreary evening to attend a small precinct caucus – perhaps in someone’s living room. Think about how many local personal appeals, involving phone calls and email messages between people who actually came to know each other, had to be made to win such a process.
Then consider how little of that kind of activity will happen in a state like Ohio. Sure, prior to the March 6 primary, plenty of money will be spent on radio and TV ads, most of them negative. There’ll be a few candidate photo opportunities at this or that staged event. At home, you may get a few annoying robo calls. But there’ll be precious little of the personal touch. There’ll be practically no rubbing of elbows with fellow party members on the grassroots precinct level. Sadly, in Ohio, we can’t be bothered with retail politics… and it’s a shame. The more distant our candidates and their campaigns are from us, the less responsive they are.
Something to leave you with. Newt Gingrich brought renewed attention to the famous Lincoln – Douglas debates. These debates were held in seven of the nine existing congressional districts within the state of Illinois, prior to the general election of 1858. Stephen Douglas, the incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator, and Abraham Lincoln, a Republican Senatorial candidate, were trying to bolster grassroots campaigns by their local parties to win a majority of the legislative seats in the Illinois State House. In those days, prior to the regrettable 17th Amendment, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislators (as they should be today). After the debates, you might favor Douglas or Lincoln. But to do either one any good, you had to translate your preference to a vote for a local legislative candidate.
The population of Illinois at that time was roughly half the size of present-day Iowa. In other words, Abe Lincoln first came to national prominence in 1858 by tromping about Illinois doing much the same kind of retail politics presidential candidates are doing every four years in modern-day Iowa. And I’m all for it.
You can have your remote, sterile primary contests focused on big media buys. I think we’d be better off with the knock-around, grassroots-oriented, local caucus approach. If the Democrats want to use it to nominate a Barack Obama, that’s fine, let them. But I want a process that gives my party a better shot at producing guys like Lincoln.
Note: each contributor at 3BP has their own favorite in the GOP race. One opinion for or against a certain candidate is not necessarily shared by other contributors.
Update: 7:40 pm 2/13/12 fixed typo and moved disclaimer to the end.