Rubio shakes up Republican race by surging into third! Hillary holds off Bernie to remain front-runner! Trump humbled by second-place showing!
These are the breathless headlines out of Iowa. And they’re crazy. I don’t mean they’re wrong . . . just crazy.
Iowa and New Hampshire have hosted the opening rounds of the Presidential nominating process for decades, sparking a quadrennial debate (at least among political scientists and other election geeks) about the wisdom of giving two demographically unrepresentative states such disproportionate influence.
Why should Iowa farmers have more power over the Republic than, say, hipsters in Brooklyn, retirees in Arizona, auto plant workers in Detroit, or coal miners in West Virginia? It’s a fair question, and it leads to some obvious follow-up questions. Maybe the states should take turns going first? Or maybe voting should kick off in states that are more diverse, or more urban, or more . . . whatever.
Putting others states at the front of the line — New Jersey and Florida, come on down! — would certainly make things different. Instead of talking about ethanol and trudging through the snow to inspect hog farms, the candidates might be talking about mass transit and offering handshakes to startled sun-bathers. But would things be better? I’m not convinced.
Because the core of the problem is not that the wrong state goes first; the core of the problem is that any state goes first.
Here’s why . . .
Every election above the level of student class representative is, in a sense, a composite of multiple smaller elections. Presidential candidates win and lose different states. Gubernatorial candidates win and lose different counties. Mayoral candidates win and lose different precincts. But usually everything occurs simultaneously, as part of a single event, so it’s easy to put each small subset of results in the right perspective and see clearly how the little pieces shape (or don’t shape) the overall outcome.
Presidential nominations, however, are the exception. Instead of a simultaneous vote, the primaries and caucuses are conducted serially. And that throws perspective out the window.
Humans are natural story-tellers, wired-up to impose a narrative structure on even random events. And when it comes to political narratives, the ceaseless demands of the 24-hour cable and Internet news cycle pour fuel on our instinctive story-telling fire. No wonder reporters, pundits, and voters overstate (or invent) the meaning of each sequential data point. We can’t help ourselves.
If this were just a matter of talking heads filling airtime with after-the-fact analysis, then it wouldn’t matter much. Wednesday’s punditry doesn’t change Tuesday’s votes.
But in a serial contest, where the next round of voting is still ahead, a phony narrative – candidate X is surging, candidate Y is stumbling, etc. – can bootstrap its way into self-fulfillment.
And that’s a big problem.
If the Iowa caucus were a standalone election then it would matter a great deal whether Hillary Clinton edged Bernie Sanders or vice versa. It would matter a great deal whether Trump finished first or Cruz finished first. Victory and defeat would have their traditional meanings, and vote tallies would have objective consequences. But it’s not a standalone election. It is one tiny piece of a national decision.
So even though as a big Hillary fan, I breathed a sigh of relief when she won Iowa (because I knew the other outcome would alter coverage of the race to Hillary’s detriment), I am forced to admit: viewed sensibly, the difference between finishing 0.3% ahead or 0.3% behind is literally meaningless.
Many things in politics are a blend of reality and perception. But when it comes to the Presidential nominating process, the balance is completely out of whack. The significance of these early contests is nearly all perception. All artificial. All over-hyped narrative.
Is there a better way? Yes. A national primary would be a lot more rational. Or at least aggregated regional primaries. The key is making sure that elections are big enough that the results actually matter for themselves, without being propped by a phony story-line.
There would be downsides — a higher barrier to entry for less-well-known candidates, to name one. Plus you’d need some sort of automatic run-off provision to prevent fringe candidates from sliding into the nomination in a crowded field. And we’d miss the personal contact that the current system affords (at least to voters in the early states.)
But this still strikes me as a lot better than our system of serial balloting, in which media spin counts for more than votes. It’s a crazy way to fill the most important job on Earth.