On February 2, national media and presidential campaigns will decamp from Iowa. The state’s citizens will be freed from the barrage of political advertising, and its media outlets will need to figure out how to fill their news holes.
Ted Cruz or Donald Trump will likely “win” the Republicans’ secret-ballot caucus, with Marco Rubio having an outside shot. Hillary Clinton is poised to “beat” Bernie Sanders in the Democrats’ preference-group caucus system.
And in the short term, those relatively clear results will matter about as much as their grand-scheme relationship to each party’s eventual presidential nominee – barely at all. Instead, the media, pundits, campaigns, and donors will all parse the outcomes against conventional-wisdom guesses about how the candidates were supposed to do.
This muddle partly explains why Iowa and other small early-voting states regularly have their prized positions at the front of the process called into question, criticized, and mocked. In September, for instance, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus told the National Journal that Iowa and New Hampshire should watch their backs after 2016. “I don’t think anyone should get too comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think there should ever be any sacred cows as to the primary process or the order.”
The quadrennial arguments against Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina – the four pre-Super Tuesday states – are familiar: These states are small in population, are unrepresentative of the country as a whole, and exercise an outsize and undue influence over the process of selecting nominees and therefore the president. (See sidebar.)
The criticism of Iowa’s role is amplified because of its first-in-the-nation status and the fact that it’s a caucus state – meaning that poorly attended party meetings with weird (or “quirky” or “arcane”) processes set the table for the remainder of the campaign.
On the other hand, those same criticisms form the foundation of the case for Iowa’s role: The relatively sparsely populated state and its caucus meetings represent a small-scale proving ground for candidates – their organizations, their fundraising, their ability to connect with voters one-on-one, and their stomach for local cuisine. If you can’t do well in Iowa, the thinking goes, you’re not going to do well in the country as a whole.
Yet both sides of the argument ignore a fundamental truth of modern presidential politics: Even if Iowa remains the first contest in the presidential-selection process moving forward, the state’s voters are playing an ever-diminishing role. As much as the state sets in motion the story of the presidential campaign, its people don’t much matter.