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Monday, December 31, 2007

Is It Time To Dethrone Iowa?

Iowa has long had an inordinate influence on presidential politics by sheer dint of its position as the first contest of the presidential campaign season. Indeed, its position as first in the nation was designed specifically to give an outsized influence to a tiny, sparsely populated and demographically unrepresentative rural state. In the general election, its actual number of electoral college votes makes it too small to be considered an influential player.

But as every primary season kicks off, months of attention falls on Iowa. The top stars of the news media all camp out there and some of the luminaries of every campaign show up. Candidates spend virtually all their time stumping in the snowy rural hinterlands, shaking every hand, conducting town hall meetings in places like Ottumwa whose only other claim to fame is that Radar O'Reilly came from there.

As a great boon to the local economy of Iowa, I don't resent this. But because it skews election results and upends the aspirations of many good candidates, I have serious concerns about the every four year circus that is the Iowa Caucus.

For starters, the caucus system does not give anybody a good feel for which candidate is really an effective vote getter. It favors good organization and lots of money and the ability to get out the most partisan citizens to spend hours publicly declaring their support for a candidate in front of all their neighbors.

In most of the nation, we have a secret ballot, which is the heart of a true democracy.

And that's the most worrisome aspect of the carnival side show we call Iowa. There is no secret ballot. And that influences how people vote.

In today' Washington Post, there is an interesting article by Shankar Vedantam, in his Department of Human Behavior column about how people make decisions.

Vedantam reports on an experiment conducted by two sociologists and a mathematician, Matthew Salganik, Duncan Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodds.

They asked a group of people to listen to and rate 48 songs. They then had 8 other groups repeat the process. The difference was that the other 8 groups all knew how other members of their group were rating the songs. While the first group, the control group, rated the songs based on the quality of the music, the other groups all picked the songs based on the opinions of others in their group. And in each of the groups, a different set of songs made the cut as the best music. There was no consistency in the choices between groups. Here's what the experimenters concluded:

...Did the eight groups come up with the same list of the best songs? No. When people knew how others thought, this changed how they thought.

Since the people in the first "control" group had nothing to go on besides the songs, their ratings were measures of quality. But in the other eight groups, quality played a much smaller role in determining a song's success. Rather, network dynamics -- the mathematical patterns that govern how ideas spread when a large group of people share complex interconnections and simultaneously influence others and are being influenced themselves -- explained why some songs became popular.

From rating songs to rating political candidates, both the sociologists, whose experiment was just published in Science Magazine, and Vedantam extrapolate that the theory of network dynamics can influence the outcome of people's choices in ways that defy logic and quality.

The experiment, published in Science, suggests that when large networks of people evaluate something together -- and it does not matter whether we are talking about songs or "American Idol" contestants or presidential candidates -- their conclusions are not only powerfully shaped by the views of others, but by the network that binds them together. The Iowa caucuses, which involve people watching one another and moving from one candidate's camp to another, have different network properties than a primary where voters don't have such real-time feedback.

The implications are ominous.

Not only does network dynamics shape the outcome of the caucuses in Iowa, it creates a false sense of momentum carrying into New Hampshire, another largely rural, largely white small state. Between them, Iowa and New Hampshire already have an inordiante influence on the outcome of presidential politics. But at least New Hampshire has a legitimate secret ballot election where pressure from neighbors and network dynamics aren't skewing the results even further than necessary.

Both New Hampshire and Iowa jealously guard their perogatives as first in the nation caucus and primary states. Every other state has been pushing the primary calendar earlier and earlier. By the time the primaries are over it will be far too early, far too much money will have been spent, and the odds of voter fatigue setting in before the general election will be greatly increased.

It's time to fix what has become a broken system that no longer works fairly and that we now know is not even producing the best candidates or the the best leaders. It's not a rational system and it's got to go. And the first step should be dethroning Iowa from its number one spot in the nation.


Isophorone said...

I have to say that I agree with you. "When I become king" (so to speak), my ideal view would have 5-6 states doing the opening primary. None of them big states. So you could have Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and, say, Oregon or Alaska. Different candidates would have different strengths, or can concentrate wherever they want. In my view, the primaries would become more competitive.

After the initial week or two, the bigger states could get their primaries, or you can have a "Super" (or "Super Duper") Tuesday.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

That's an interesting idea. I've also heard a proposal to have regional primaries and each election cycle giving a specific region the chance to be first so that no one area has a monopoly on first in the nation status or has an inordinate influence that is permanently enshrined in the process.

Either your proposal or that makes more sense that what we do now. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Isophorone said...

The region idea has merit in that it sure would save on travel expenses! However, if one candidate had a lot of strength in one secion of the country, the strength factor would multiply.

The other problem I have with the "region" approach is if there is a 900 pound gorilla in the region, like New York, Texas, or California. Maybe those states could always be left out.

I wonder how long you could keep a "fair" rotation going?

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Good points. On the other hand is it necessarily more fair to simply feature small states because they are small to give them more clout or influence in a primary?

How much does that skew the outcome and actually hurt each party.

For me, one of the problems of having small states have such a large role in determining the candidate is that it leaves both sides' candidates untested in the more urban and populated regions that ultimately decide the general elections. So, it often leaves us with weaker candidates who may appeal to their base voters but not to the larger public.

I've always been a skeptic about the notion that a place which has plentiful land but few voters should have as much say as place that may look smaller on a map but have more people.

That may seem unfair but is it? The idea should be that people vote, not rocks or trees. The more democratic (small "d" here) way is to let the majority of people have the deciding influence.

I can see rotating regions so that the South is first in the nation in one cycle, the Northeast in another, and the Western states in still another. But all the major cities should be included in the region. Then, you get an accurate sense of which candidate appeals most effectively to the broadest demographic of the voting public.

I think we'd all get better, stronger and more representative candidates that way.