Thank you, Iowa

Guests in Marshalltown, Iowa watch a live C-SPAN broadcast as Rick Santorum speaks in an adjacent room at Legends Bar and Grill last week

Story highlights

  • William Howell says now that Iowa caucus over, we should thank patient people of Iowa
  • He says some might pick a bigger, diverse, representative state for first caucus
  • But he says Iowa allows candidates equal time, no matter their campaign coffers
  • Howell: In Iowa, candidates make their case up close, impossible in populous states
As each of the Republican candidates claims victory of one kind or another -- having beaten the others, having beaten expectations, having beaten odds or some combination of all three -- and heads eastward for another contest, some thanks are in order. To the people of Iowa.
Every four years, presidential candidates descend upon the small, unassuming state to make their case. They do so for months on end, glad-handing farmers and old folk and insurance salesmen in each of the state's 99 counties, delivering variants of the same stump speech as if its contents had just occurred to them.
Over bacon breakfasts and Sunday sermons, these candidates parade their policy positions, personal histories, moral convictions and leadership styles. And then come early January, as just happened today, party activists around the state render their judgment, and thereby establish an important precedent for the primary season to follow.
Every four years, one also can count on a bevy of political observers to bemoan this state of affairs.
Why should such extraordinary responsibility be vested in one small state? And particularly one that is a great deal whiter, rural and less educated than the rest of the union? Stephen Bloom took on the question of "why-Iowa?" in a controversial article for The Atlantic last month, in which he referred to a "schizophrenic" and "culturally challenged" state, home to some of the "wackiest" congressmen and "scuzziest" towns in the nation, where the only reason to own a dog is "to track and bag animals you want to stuff, mount, or eat."
Given the clear importance of early wins in presidential campaigns, it seems patently nuts to abide a primary and caucus schedule that begins with a population whose interests in ethanol subsidies would appear to rival their concerns for national defense. Again, Stephen Bloom: "How screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose -- before anyone else -- the person who may become the next leader of the free world."
Shouldn't the residents of larger, more diverse states, such as Florida, New York, Texas or California, be given the job of vetting our presidents? No. And for two reasons.
William Howell
First, it is precisely because of Iowa's size and community organization that less well-known, and hence less well-funded, candidates can gain traction in presidential campaigns. Though the contents of their war chests are not irrelevant—just ask Tim Pawlenty—they are not the only relevant factor.
For this brief interlude in presidential politics, electoral fortunes depend as much upon the establishment of personal connections and acquisition of key endorsements as on expensive ad buys, which helps explain why Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who spent little money but lots of time in Iowa, managed to keep pace with the mighty Mitt Romney and his deep Superpac reserves.
Were the primary season to begin with New York, the only candidates worth monitoring would be those who, roughly 18 months before the Democratic and Republican conventions even are held, have the wherewithal to blanket the state with television and radio advertising
And this leads to the second reason why our nation benefits from having Iowa -- and then the likes of New Hampshire (population 1.3 million) and South Carolina (population 4.5 million) -- lead off. To generate momentum in these states, presidential candidates must speak directly to actual voters in these small states. Far and away the most time that candidates (and later presidents) spend engaging actual voters, listening to their policy preferences, concerns and struggles, occurs in the months that precede these early caucuses and primaries.
If you lament the amounts of money spent in presidential campaigns (amounts that will only increase in the post-Citizens United era) or the intellectual poverty of televised debates between presidential candidates, then you should applaud the good people of Iowa. For months at a stretch, they scrutinize the candidates in their homes, diners, meeting halls and churches. For before long, some of these same candidates will be swept up into much larger, more exclusive venues.
Could other small states perform the same service for the nation? Of course. Could they do it better than Iowa? I doubt it. And regardless, it is because the residents of Iowa engage these presidential candidates as much, and as well, as they do -- inviting not just the candidates themselves into daily activities, but the national electorate as well -- that some gratitude is owed.
So thanks Iowa.