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Why Is Iowa Special?

And so the whole wretched business begins again, as the anointed tribal elite in Iowa gather tonight to caucus (which comes from an obscure Kickapoo Indian word meaning “to put tribal defectives in a dark room and order them to run around in circles acting like idiots”) six months early or possibly four years late, depending on your perspective.

It's well known that I hate politics, and so don't talk much about it. I don't talk much about dark green leafy vegetables either, but that doesn't keep some knuckleheads from holding that they are the keys to eternal life. But I bring up questions now and then that no one else seems to be asking, like this one: Why does Iowa get to be first, and winnow the slate of candidates before anybody else gets a shot at them?

Here and there you may possibly see the question posed, just before the anointed elite and Big Media tut-tut and say that that's the way it's always been. (Which, by the way, was a major argument in favor of retaining racial segregation.) They then change the subject. More rarely, someone with more guts than sense dares to answer the question, generally by declaring that Iowa is somehow special in a demographic sense. Special? Hey, we're all special today, right? (Ask any third-grade teacher.) You hear the term “microcosm” a lot, generally from people who don't know what it means. As the Wall Street Journal reminded us this morning, the only Iowa caucus winner in recent memory who went all the way to the White House was Jimmy Carter.

In truth, there's nothing special about Iowa that isn't special about Nebraska, Wyoming, or South Carolina. The current primary system gives people in early states power over the choices of people in later states, and that is not a good thing. This leaves us two other alternatives: 1) Have a single national primary in all states on the same day to select November's candidates, or 2) try something else.

Alternative #1 would be better than what we have now (which is simply idiotic) but there's a strong argument against it: Without that early “momentum” obtainable in small states like New Hampshire and Iowa, the big states would select the candidates. This is a reasonable objection, and basically the same one that sustains the Electoral College, which is neither as good nor as bad a mechanism as many people think. (It could use improvement, but let's forego that discussion until November.)

What else can we try? Well, one mechanism seems obvious to me: Assign each of the 50 states a random number from 1 to 50, and then run primaries on 25 consecutive weeks, in which the states that pulled 1 and 2 hold primaries the first week, those that pulled 3 and 4 the second week, and so on, with the states that pulled 49 and 50 primarying (is that a verb? Hey, everything else is!) last. If by some fluke larger states pull small numbers in 2008, it's likely that smaller states will get the same fluke in 2012. But for the most part, it'll be a good mix, and most important of all, not a predictable one. No candidate would be able to snatch momentum by spending months studying the idiosyncratic specialness of Iowans or New Hampshirians and then pandering to that specialness. They'd have to be able to pander to the specialness of any state at all, or (better yet) give up pandering completely and stand on their records.

Such a Randomly Ordered Sequential Primary (ROSP) could make the Giant Pander an endangered species. Now that would be special!

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