What's the matter with Iowa?
That's a question worth asking as news from the Hawkeye state circulates about
next year's presidential caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6, 2012.
According to a recent Associated Press dispatch
from Des Moines, Mitt Romney and other potential Republican White House aspirants are considering strategies of avoiding or not emphasizing Iowa in their nomination bids.
With conservatives, particularly evangelical Christians, so involved in Iowa GOP politics, Romney and someone like Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana (who is on record for wanting "to call a truce on the so-called social issues") could face a less-than-fertile political landscape.
In Romney's case, a different approach to the caucuses would be an attempt to keep history from repeating itself. In 2008, $10 million and 200 staffers resulted in a weak second-place finish to the penny-pinched, little-assisted Mike Huckabee, 34 percent to 25 percent.
Romney learned the lesson that the state's caucus system invariably brings out a high percentage of the most committed party faithful, which can pose problems for candidates who are perceived as mainstream.
For 2012, the former Massachusetts governor and early front-runner in polls could well follow John McCain's 2008 example of subordinating Iowa -- McCain ended up fourth with 13 percent -- to devote more resources and time to the New Hampshire primary, set for Feb. 14.
Although the national committees of the Republicans and Democrats jointly agreed months ago to allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to keep their February first-in-line dates for the contests a year from now -- with everyone else voting in March or later -- there's already less-than-secret plotting in certain states to jump ahead and break the rules.
In Florida, for instance, GOP state legislators want a January primary
-- and all the news coverage it would bring. And Florida isn't alone in wanting more clout and attention.
Whatever actually happens, when will Americans realize the (to-be-kind) shortcomings of the state-vs.-state nominating system and demand a more logical, purposeful national process that operates beyond the whims and ambitions of individual states?
Since 1968, when there were just 15 states with presidential primaries, Democratic and Republican candidates have had to endure a growing number of state-based contests spread out over several months.
Some states hold Democratic and Republican primaries on different days, while others conduct a primary for one party and a caucus for the other. Is this any way to select the nominees for the nation's highest office?
One plan to remove this every-state-for-itself arrangement (or derangement) is to create a regional nominating system with, say, 10 states forming each region. Then, over a five-month period, beginning in March, candidates could compete in a specific, defined region rather than in one state or the mishmash of more than 20 state contests that occurred on Feb. 5, 2008.
To keep the playing fields as level as possible, the order of regional voting wouldn't be determined until the January of that election year, possibly as part of the State of the Union address or some other civic occasion.
Such a set-up means that candidates could be touring the United States during preceding months, trying out their messages and building support on a national basis before embarking on campaigns in specific areas of the country.
One advantage of a regional system is that candidates would not have to target their appeal to narrow, state-centric constituencies that cater to a party's more extreme followers. Moreover, with each passing cycle, the random ordering would give larger numbers of voters the feeling they have more of a say in the nominating process.
In other words, it's time to look beyond individual states -- like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- and consider a more representative, democratic way of selecting presidential nominees. To be sure, the 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton proved thrilling all the way to early June when it was finally decided. But that extended, competitive slugfest is the exception.
Usually, the likely Democratic and Republican standard bearers are known in either February or early March -- as was the case with McCain in 2008 -- with citizens in most states harboring the feeling of being left out.
No potential White House aspirant will ever utter a discouraging word about the current system or any early state, but that shouldn't stop the people from lobbying Congress to initiate reform. A more methodical, rational process would involve more voters in the choice of presidential candidates and, just as important, impose order on the current chaos.
Instead of asking what's the matter with Iowa, the real question should be: What's the matter with America for not having a coherent procedure for selecting presidential nominees?