The disaster that was the Iowa caucuses earlier this month was not the first time the Midwestern state’s super-early, super-weird substitute for a primary election has messed with a national presidential race.
But we shouldn’t be pretending Iowa is the problem with how presidential primaries work in this country.
Maybe the state will fix its process now that it’s been embarrassed yet again on the national stage; maybe it won’t. Either way, we’ll still have a primary process for the most powerful seat in our government that depends on pandering, ignores the preferences of huge chunks of the country and encourages everyone to think in “us vs. them” terms.
There are lots of fixes needed for the current system. Perhaps the most obvious is that there shouldn’t be such a huge time gap between the first primary-election event (the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 this year) and the last (four states and Washington, D.C., on June 2).
The lengthy timeline means Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina can have a hugely outsized influence on who gets the chance to be president in the general election. It also means states like Kentucky, which has one of the last six primaries in the nation, are never relevant.
This is actually not as problematic when it comes to choosing a presidential candidate for either party as it is problematic for voter turnout.
In states that get to vote while there’s still a primary choice, voters have an extra incentive to get to the polls and make their voices heard — and that means there are more voters also participating in state and local elections, which can easily have a far more influential effect on voters’ day-to-day lives.
Because we spread the primaries out, many states miss out on the maximum potential from this presidential primary turnout boost.
If the primaries occurred closer together, or at least only on a few dates with a significant number of states on each date, we could create better voter turnout across the nation, not just in a handful of states that happened to pick early primary dates.
The media contribute to the problem with our current primaries by buying in 100% on the horse-race angle.
The Iowa caucus and three early primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are almost universally represented in national media as the races that define the primary race and even pick the eventual winner.
But those four states together represent less than 4% of the U.S. population.
If you were trying to figure what toppings are on a pizza while blindfolded, you wouldn’t take one bite with a pepperoni on it and declare that the entire pizza is covered in pepperonis. Or at least, if you did, you’d stand a very good chance of being wrong.
At least with our pizza game, declaring pepperoni the winner after one bite is irrelevant. If the rest of the pizza has green peppers, then all that’s happened is you’ve lost a silly game.
Current media coverage of presidential primaries is just as silly, but it has serious impacts on our democracy. It’s reckless and harmful.
The media could use their platform that can reach the country to educate the population on the nuances of the process.
They could focus more on issues, positions and leadership abilities of the candidates, rather than polls and whichever candidate may or may not have claimed a small advantage in one corner of the country.
Unfortunately, for real change to happen, the states that get all the attention now would have to agree to share that attention with the rest of the country. And media outlets would have to forego easy clicks and attention-grabbing headlines in favor of serious content that could do a lot of good even if it doesn’t attract blockbuster audiences.
Neither of those possibilities seems likely right now.
We doubt anything will change for 2024, either. But maybe if enough people push back and demand fixes to the current broken system, eventually there will be enough support to create positive change.