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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Final Cry of Rage at Iowa

Media Matters’ Paul Waldman has a very angry article up at The American Prospect that can best be described as a cry of rage and frustration at the predominant position of Iowa (and to a lesser extent New Hampshire) in determining the Democratic presidential nomination, despite another three years of handwringing about the irrationality of the situation. Waldman’s take is distinctive mainly insofar as he assigns principal blame for Iowa’s continued power to the political press corps rather than to the candidates, the DNC, or to Iowans themselves.
I dunno about that. The DNC and the candidates, acting in concert, could have neutered IA and NH for this cycle, simply by refusing to recognize delegates chosen there, and by refusing to campaign there, just as they’ve successfully neutered efforts by MI and FL to change the calendar. The one point (which Waldman doesn’t raise) on which the media seem most responsible is with respect to the DNC’s one timid effort to interfere with the Duopoly, the authorization of a post-IA, pre-NH Caucus in Nevada. If current media coverage is any indication, NV’s theoretically important results aren’t going to get much attention at all as the press corps flies from Des Moines to Manchester in January (indeed, NV could lose its position entirely if IA and NH move up in response to the Republicans’ authorization of significant early events in MI and FL).
Waldman’s argument (echoed by Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias) that Iowa’s power is actually increasing strikes me as an overstatement of a situation that’s attributable to completely coincidental candidate dynamics. Given the total domination of the field, financially and in terms of national appeal, by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it’s true that for Edwards, a loss in IA will likely be the end of the road. But HRC can obviously survive an IA loss, and so could Obama, particularly in the case of an Edwards defeat which would create a one-on-one competition that is bound to help Obama. And for Richardson, Dodd or Biden, an upset third-place (much less second-place) finish in IA would represent a new lease on life, not a death sentence.
And look at the Republican side of the campaign: the two leading candidates (according to national polls) for the GOP nomination are both pursuing post-IA victory strategies (one, Fred Thompson, seems to be pursuing a post-IA, post-NH strategy). Sure, the refusal of candidates to boycott MI and FL is a factor here, but in part it’s because there are so many delegates to be won later. Maybe the media will crown Romney the nominee if he wins IA and NH anyway, but it’s just as likely that IA will create a viable dark horse like Huckabee who will muddy the waters.
By examining the low participation rates in the Duopoly events, Waldman does effectively dispute the much-heard claim that voters in IA and NH have earned their power by developing a tradition of careful and knowledgeable candidate vetting, essentially performing a public service for the rest of us, who would prefer to tune in much later. Iowa’s especially low participation rates are, of course, less attributable to apathy than to the peculiar demands associated with spending a long, cold evening listening to boring speeches, mastering the arcane Caucus rules, and also voting on party platform issues. But Waldman’s point is well-taken: it’s not like we’re witnessing the revival of Athenian democracy in IA or NH every four years.
He does not, however, grapple directly with the other common argument for beginning the nominating process as we do: it forces candidates to engage in a form of retail politics that keeps them from simply becoming actors in TV ads. Lest we forget, the first major effort to challenge the Duopoly on the Democratic side–the southern-based version of Super Tuesday held in 1988–produced what was then dubbed a “tarmac campaign” where the candidates never engaged with voters at all, and the results simply confirmed what had happened earlier in NH.
We obviously need a new system for nominating candidates for president. But we need a “system,” not just something that’s different from the status quo. The remarkable durability of the Duopoly has always suggested to me that the best opportunity to abolish it would be in a cycle where an incumbent president is running for re-election without intra-party opposition (a situation that Democrats have only enjoyed once since 1964). Maybe that could happen going into 2012. But shhhhhhh! Let’s don’t talk about it much, or Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire may start eliciting pledges to maintain the Duopoly forever.

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