Iowa’s special role in primaries may end in 2008, expert suggests

Major parties see problems, may push reforms before 2012

Jan. 3, 2008 — Today’s Iowa Caucuses may be the last in which the largely rural, sparsely populated and predominately white conservative Midwestern state exerts such a huge influence on the presidential nomination process, predicts Steven S. Smith, a political expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Steven Smith
Steven Smith

“The major parties would be far better off if the presidential nominees were chosen much later in the process,” contends Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences. “I wouldn’t be surprised if both parties begin pushing for major reforms in the nomination processes shortly after the 2008 elections.”

Smith says he has nothing against Iowa or New Hampshire, but, like many who follow national political races, he has serious misgivings about their special role as the first in the nation to select nominees. Iowa, he notes is far from representative of the nation — its population is too rural and too white to play such a critical role in choosing the nominee.

“It’s a lousy way to elect a president,” Smith says. “Is it reasonable to allow states like Iowa and New Hampshire to have such a disproportionate impact on the presidential race?”

In the past, says Smith, it was argued that what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t matter too much because only the weakest of candidates would be eliminated. The long nomination process was designed to allow voters to learn enough about the surviving candidates to gradually winnow the field in time for the November general elections.

What’s changed now, says Smith, is that major parties have been unable to hold off a stampede of other states vying to push up the dates of their primaries and caucuses. Both parties tried to limit front-loading of the process by setting limits on when states could hold caucuses or primaries, and then granting exemptions for states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but most states have pushed their primaries up to or beyond those limits.

“That’s why so many states have moved their primaries up to Feb. 5 — the earliest date allowed by the parties,” Smith explains. “As a result, more than half the state delegates will already be assigned to a nominee by sometime late in the evening of Feb. 5.”

Smith notes that the current nomination process is a creature of reforms sparked by Democratic Party concerns over the way Hubert Humphrey won the election in 1968. The McGovern Commission put rules in place before the 1972 elections to ensure that state delegates would be assigned in away that was proportional to the candidates’ support in the state.

“Iowa’s special role as the first state to cast votes in the nomination process is a phenomenon of relatively recent vintage,” suggests Smith. “They chose to move their caucus date up so they would be ahead of New Hampshire and gain more attention and more leverage in the election. It’s difficult to say whether that tradition will be preserved in 2012.”

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