Saturday, January 5, 2008

Obama, Huckabee, and Iowa...Oh My! - Yawn...

So Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have won the Iowa caucuses. Even though I'm a political junkie I find myself in a state of total apathy about the state of the Presidential primaries. Why? Simple: Because those of us who live in Indiana have absolutely no voice in choosing who the candidates will be. Unless I give money to one of the candidates (and think how much money it takes to make a difference), my voice will never be heard in the selection process. Why? Because Indiana doesn't hold its primary until May, months after the heart of the primary season has ended and the candidates have, for all practical purposes, been chosen. Just think about it: About 200,000 Iowans have voted and at least two candidates have already dropped out of the race. The 299,000,000 Americans (give or take) who don't live in Iowa will not have a chance to vote for those candidates in the primaries. By the time Hoosiers vote, many more candidates will have dropped out of the race and the likely winners will, by then, have probably secured enough delegates to declare victory and make Indiana's primary essentially meaningless. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound much like the way the democratic process is supposed to work.

There are several problems with the way the process works (well, maybe far more than several, but that is a much broader subject for another day). First, think how much attention is devoted to Iowa and New Hampshire. I heard a story a few weeks ago (on NPR, I think) in which the reporter commented that by the time of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, most interested voters would have had the opportunity to meet at least two of the candidates. By comparison, I don't think that any of the candidates have visited Indiana or, if they have, it has only been for fundraisers open to big donors. Most of us Hoosiers will never have the chance to meet, let alone question, one of the candidates.

Second, just how representative of the rest of the US are Iowa and New Hampshire? Do they have minority populations that reflect the overall minority populations of the rest of the country? Do they have similar left-right distributions of voters? How do the average socio-economic levels of Iowans and New Hampshireites (what exactly is someone from New Hampshire called?) compare to the rest of the country? What about the breakdown of urban to rural voter? Average level of education? Don't get me wrong; the people of Iowa and New Hampshire have just as much right as everyone else to have a say in the selection of presidential candidates (and, by obvious extension, the next president). But do those people have the right to have more input than the rest of us? Look at the electoral college (which, itself, will likely be the topic of another post down the road): According to Wikipedia (checked January 5, 2008), Iowa has 7 electoral votes and represents just 0.98% of the population while New Hampshire has only 4 electoral votes and represents just 0.43% of the population. So, out of a total population of about 300,000,000 people, states with a combined population of about 4,200,000 have a vastly disproportionate role in picking the presidential candidates. While a statistician might accept as statistically significant a survey of those 4,200,000 out of the 300,000,000, I doubt that a statistician would accept that unless he believed that the representative sample was consistent with the rest of the population. Think of it this way: Would you be satisfied if the choice of president was based on 11 electoral votes while the other 531 votes weren't counted? Of course not.

And now, the parties themselves are starting to try to tell states when they can and can't hold their primaries. On one hand that is fine; after all, the primaries are for the parties to pick their respective candidates, so they should be able to do what they want. But, in that situation, the primaries should be solely private functions run and funded by the parties and should have nothing to do with the states and their elected officials. But, as we all know, the parties don't foot the bill for the primaries (I don't know about the Iowa caucus); you and I do through our taxes. I believe that each state pays for the primary just as for the general election. So, if the states are holding the primary as a form of preliminary election, by what right does a private party have to tell the state how and when to hold its election? (Recall that the parties have told Florida that its delegates may not count because the parties don't like that Florida moved up its primary.)

Essentially, the primary process has become a year-long race around the country to get as much money as possible and then to spend that money in just a few states. So, while my money may interest a candidate, my voice, choice, and vote don't really matter.

Finally, let's look at Indiana (which, in the early part of the 1900s actually held one of the first primaries in the country). The most frequently uttered reason for why Indiana won't move its presidential primary up is that the members of the Indiana General Assembly (our legislature) don't want to have a primary for their offices during the legislative session (Indiana's legislature is not a full time legislature; it meets for several months beginning in January). Yet it wouldn't be difficult to have a separate primary for presidential candidates in January or February and keep the general primary in May (I believe that several other states of done just this). The response to this suggestion has been that it would be prohibitively expensive to hold this "extra" primary. First, it is worth remembering that this extra primary would only need to be held once every four years. Second, wouldn't it be worth the cost to give Hoosiers a say in picking the next president? It would seem to me that the cost of a primary would pale in comparison to the value of giving Hoosiers a voice. And finally, even if it is expensive, wouldn't the possible revenue from campaigning activities be a potential boon to the state? Just think of the revenue to the diners and cafes (think of how many pictures you've seen of a candidate in a neighborhood restaurant in Iowa or New Hampshire) and TV networks (I think that I heard the other day that 1 out of every 3 commercials airing in Iowa during the last few weeks was paid for by a candidate).

I'm not sure of the real reason for the ongoing refusal of Indiana's legislators to move our primary; all I know is that by keeping our primary in May, our legislators are preventing Hoosiers from having a say in the presidential selection process. That isn't democratic. I think that it may be time for Hoosiers to start demanding action.

So, congratulations to Senator Obama and Governor Huckabee. Congratulations to the people of Iowa. And congratulations (insert dripping sarcasm) to the rest of America for the loss of true democracy in the presidential primary process.

Update (October 9, 2015): Correct typo.

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