Looks Like America? Fixing the Broken Primary System

Let me introduce this post by stating one strongly held belief, loud and clear: I think Iowa’s “First in Nation” caucus is very bad for our country, and the state’s stranglehold on this position of political power should be ended, soon.

I’ve lived for at least a year in eleven different states, and I worked full-time for two years in a twelfth. I’ve traveled extensively through another twenty-some states, so I have a good sense of “what America looks like” at a fairly granular level. After four years of living in Iowa, I can tell you that this is not that. In fact, in many important ways, Iowa feels far more different and unusual than any other state where I’ve spent a lot of time: it’s whiter, it’s older, it’s less military, it’s less tolerant, it’s more paternalistic, it’s more agricultural, and its culture is quirky, to say the least.

kingBut Iowa doesn’t seem to know this. After decades of having local, national and international media outlets spinning the narrative that Iowans are somehow better qualified than other states’ citizens to vet Presidential candidates, and more responsible than their peers at taking this important civic duty to heart, the natives have actually come to believe this, and there’s a layer of smug superiority at play over which other states should take umbrage.

The state’s latent conservatism hurts the GOP more than it hurts the Democratic party, because it forces Republicans to spout hard right ideology to win over the locals, while liberals are required to shift their positions rightward toward the center. Viable moderate Republicans are quashed or smeared early on as a result, and the things they say to the Iowans generally come back to haunt them later on, if they survive past the first caucus. Democrats who play moderate in Iowa are then accused of flip-flopping when they return to leftward form after escaping the cornfields. It’s a bad first wicket, either way.

And here’s the bottom line: the ability to serve as Commander in Chief of a global super-power has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to make small talk while eating a pork tenderloin sandwich in a rural Iowa diner. And that’s the quaint cornerstone of the Iowa caucus experience, along with pledged devotion to the “Full Grassley” tour of all 99 counties. (I’ve done that tour myself; it’s time consuming and over-rated). There’s also the huge economic boom that the caucuses deliver to Iowa, which makes local politicians shrill in their defense of these politically quaint and culturally out-dated electoral notions. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep it here, whether its good for America or not.

While I don’t have the personal experience in New Hampshire that I have in Iowa, I would suspect that the same narrative holds true: locals think they’re somehow better than the rest of the country at eye-balling political candidates, though their tests and rituals are no more effective than those that any other state would deploy under similar circumstances.monsanto

So what would I do about it? If I were Emperor of the American States, I’d mandate a nation-wide primary day, where all fifty states and the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands would cast primary ballots at the same time, thereby drastically shortening the obscenely long process our political parties undertake to select their nominees. This would also dramatically undercut the power of money in the process, which can only be viewed as a good thing.

If I were only Majordomo of the American States, without full imperial powers to command all to do my bidding, then my second choice would be to have the parties go to a rotating process, where a different 10 states — selected to represent ~20% of the electoral college each cycle, ideally with some regional variety — would get “First in Nation” privileges each cycle, so everyone would get a shot every fifth election. It’s not ideal, obviously, but at least it would break the unfair and unhealthy Iowa and New Hampshire stranglehold.

If I were just a humble party chairman, I’d go with a lesser approach of allowing a small number of states, maybe still only two to four, to maintain a position of primacy — but I’d try to figure out which states would actually make sense if the goal was to produce a state primary outcome that might in some way more realistically and rationally reflect the national will. Unlike, say, Iowa Republicans voting for Rick Santorum four years ago. But only after miscounting the vote, and initially reporting that they’d voted for Mitt Romney. Yeesh.

eyesI don’t have the power or authority to do that — but with 30 years in the public sector and two political science/public policy degrees, I do have the ability to try the answer the core question in a quantitative fashion: if one state was to receive a permanent (or at least long term) appointment as “First in Nation” in the Presidential election process, which state should it be?

Toward this end, I made a spreadsheet, as I so often do when confronted with otherwise unanswerable questions. Spreadsheets make everything better.

In the spreadsheet, I identified a set of metrics on a state by state basis, normalized them on a logarithmic scale, then scored states on their variance from national norms. For each metric, I used the most current, defensible data sets available; the oldest data deployed are from 2010, with most being more current. The closer a state falls to the national norm in each metric, the higher its awarded score is in that particular category. The further a state falls (high or low) from the national norm, the lower its score in that category.iowawine

If a single state was smack in the middle of each and every category, then that state could legitimately make a claim that it “looked like America.” I would then support that state’s right to the special role as Evaluator General for Presidential Elections, since its people were truly as representative of the nation as a whole as any state could be. Even if that State was Iowa.

I tried to use metrics that capture the way regular Americans think about themselves and their communities. What color are we? What language do we speak? How old are we? How educated? How rich? Where do we worship? Are we military? Are we healthy?

Here are the categories I evaluated for each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia. I did not include Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in my database, since they do hold primaries, but their citizens are not allowed to vote in the actual Presidential elections. (I’d change that, too, if I were Emperor of the American States, but that’s a different article).

  • Black Population Percentage
  • Hispanic Population Percentage
  • Median Age
  • College Degree Percentage
  • Percent Self-Declared Christians
  • Urban Population Percentage
  • Household Income
  • Jobless Rate
  • Life Expectancy
  • Per Capita Healthcare Spending
  • Per Capita Military Spending
  • Per Capita Federal Revenue
  • Correlation with Actual Presidential Results (1916-2012)

I loaded all of these data sets into the spreadsheet, set up the normalizing and summarizing formulas, and pushed the big calculator button. And got a result that feels right and good.

By my estimation, if one state in the nation should be given the right to represent all of us in a “First in Nation” primary, then that state should be Wisconsin. If we needed to have a pairing of the Iowa vs New Hampshire variety, then the two states most qualified to represent us all would be Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Here’s the entire list, from most to least qualified to serve as proxy for the nation as a whole. The scores are normalized to a 100 point scale, with the highest ranking state receiving 100 points, and the lowest ranking state (Maine) receiving 0 points, to allow all 51 states (and District) to be compared in relative terms.

LooksLikeAmericaThe four highlighted lines represent the four states that are currently accorded special privileges when it comes to early primaries. None of them deserve the right to represent us, if we want our bellwether to “Look Like America.”

So why do they continue to do so? Well, here’s a list I developed of reasons why Iowa might claim the right, and I’d love to hear from somebody who could develop a similar list for New Hampshire.

If those tongue-in-cheek reasons don’t resonate with you, then I guess we just have to sigh and say “Well, it’s always been that way” (even though it hasn’t) or “Well, nobody else could do any better” (even though they could) or “Because that’s where the money bags want it to be” (which is probably right).

But I don’t like any of those answers, and I long for change. So let’s give Wisconsin and Pennsylvania a crack in 2020 and see how they do, shall we?

Make it so, Number Two. The Emperor of the Americas has other spreadsheets to create.

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