Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 20, 2005
POLITICS: Iowa and New Hampshire

Patrick Hynes of and Daily Kos have been having an unsurprisingly bruising debate over whether the Democrats should abandon the privileged position of Iowa and New Hampshire on the primary schedule. Hynes, taking the parochial New Hampshirite view, opened with this op-ed piece in the Union-Leader, NH's most influential newspaper, arguing that

[T]hese efforts to reform the nomination process will force candidates to compete in more states conterminously, thereby driving up the cost of running for President. And the fringe elements behind such plans know that they can dominate the entire nomination process by driving up the cost of running for the Democrat nomination.

Kos responded with his usual ad hominem attacks and venom, but also took on a few of the key arguments along the way:

Small states allow for 'retail politics' Wonderful. Retail politics. Too bad the general election has nothing to do with retail politics. Give me the guy or gal who can best use the media to communicate an effective message.

Small states allow 'underdog' candidates to be competitive
Dean was about as underdog a candidate as you could get not named "Dennis", and he did mighty fine. Technology now allows good candidates to fire up partisans nationwide and fill the coffers with the necessary moolah necessary for a strong primary bid.

IA and NH voters take their job seriously
Other voters might take their jobs seriously as well, if they had the chance to voice their choice. Other voters, in states large and small, would take their voters as seriously.

And to be honest, I don't see how NH took their votes any more seriously than any other state would've. As for IA, having 10 percent of Democrats make their choice without a secret ballot is inherently undemocratic.

The winners of Iowa and New Hampshire don't always decide the nomination
Until 2004, we didn't have a 24/7 political media on cable news and the Internet. Once upon a time, the IA election results were a one- or two-day story. NH would make its own choice, as would every subsequent state. Nowadays, the media circus around Iowa guarantees that the winner of the caucus will be far more influential than in years past.

Case in point -- Wesley Clark led several polls in NH until Iowa. After Kerry's win, Clark faded to obscurity.

Hynes fires back here, noting, among other things:

Kos is stuck in the 90's. Retail politics is back. With micro-targeting, individual contact is more important now than perhaps at any time since 1948.

Kos isn't necessarily wrong just because he's Kos. The primary season is, in many ways, like reality television or the bar exam: it's a series of sometimes pointless-seeming challenges we expect presidential contenders to overcome because, traditionally, we've learned something about them along the way that helps us pick the right guy. In that vein, I do think there's something useful about kicking off the process with a round that forces the contestants to do some retail politics. The fact that the president will spend the next four to eight years in a bubble hiding behind spokesflacks and the instruments of mass communication is all the more reason to require him (or her) to first slog through the humbling task of kissing up to oridnary Americans one at a time. It's a useful reminder that the president works for us.

Kos' real gripe is the undue influence that the Iowa victory had on Kerry's air of inevitability in 2004. But the problem wasn't Iowa; the problem was that the compressed nature of the primary schedule didn't give adequate time for anyone else to build anti-Kerry momentum after that first victory until Kerry all but had things sewn up. And, I should add, the mood of the Democratic primary voters was a desperate hunger to settle quickly on a candidate and start gearing up for the fall. The solution to that problem has little to do with who goes first.

I'm more sympathetic to some of the anti-Iowa points: that the Iowa caucuses are run in an undemocratic, unrepresentative fashion and that Iowa in particular tends to use its status to extort support from presidential contenders for parochial pork issues (ethanol, ahem). That's the natural hazard of having the same small states at the top of the calendar every four years.

Kos doesn't mention another common talking point on the Left: That Iowa and NH are unrepresentative of the Democratic electorate because they are nearly all-white states, and he doesn't get to the core question of whether he thinks that other states would produce a more or less left-leaning electorate.

On the other hand, it's sort of ironic that the effort to attack these two states would come now, at a time when IA and NH are two of the most closely divided swing states in the union, with IA one of just two Gore states to go for Bush in 2004, NH the only 2000 Bush state to go for Kerry, and both decided by razor-thin margins in 2000 and 2004. This is why I think changing IA and NH's status would be a bad idea for the Democrats at this moment in time, regardless of the abstract merits of the idea. If the Democrats are serious about finding a candidate who can appeal to swing state rural voters, you could hardly pick two better places to campaign, especially with the added appeal that a candidate gets name recognition early in a state he'll need to win later, a factor that clearly helped Kerry in both states (in fact, a rational party would simply look at whichever states were most hotly contested in the previous election and stick those at the top of the calendar). Turning with blind fury against the very states the Democrats need to win, in favor of an effort to rig the process to favor a left-wing insurgency with no base in any swing state, is not a prudent strategy.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:54 AM | Politics 2005 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

There are, I think, good principled reasons why Iowa and New Hampshire should not be allowed to perpetually wield such influence, but for exactly the reasons you cited, they are good choices for the Democrats on a practicle level - unless they want to elevate Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida to the front of the line, there are few options that would likely yield more electable candidates.

The close bunching of the primaries did make it hard to stop Kerry's momentum, but he was also greatly aided by a relative lack of good alternatives, especially once the wheels came off of Dean's campaign. If Wes Clark, for example, had been a good candidate, I think he probably could have still caught Kerry despite the schedule - but he just wasn't.

At any rate, most of the complaints are because Kerry lost, pure and simple. If Bush had gotten a thousand fewer votes in Florida in 2000, Republicans would probably have had a similar debate about how the early prominence of South Carolina kept them from choosing what was likely the more electable candidate, but winning makes such issues go away.

Posted by: Jerry at January 20, 2005 10:17 AM

Very true, although the importance of South Carolina has been inflated a bit in retrospect - its real importance came from the fact that there were a lot of other Southern states on the GOP primary calendar. But the influence of South Carolina will probably be seen again in 2008 as a bellwether for candidates' ability to appeal to conservative southerners.

Posted by: The Crank at January 20, 2005 10:30 AM

Jeez, Crank. Kos is sometimes full of venom, but save your ad hominem attacks for the occasions when he is. Needlessly and harshly attacking as you did here does a disservice to the discussion. Kos wrote a perfectly good response op-ed to the one written by Hynes. Why no link to that?

You admit that "Kos isn't necessarily wrong just because he's Kos", but you sure jump to the extreme over-reaction to what he's written just because he wrote it.

Posted by: Mr Furious at January 20, 2005 5:26 PM
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