Since 1962 the United States has made a special issue of voter equality. The Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr that the populations of state legislative districts and U.S. congressional districts must be equal. The principle became best known by the slogan: “One person, one vote!”
Yet, on Monday, in the Iowa caucuses, one of the most unequal and unfair voting procedures ever devised will commence. A relatively small number of early-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire and a few others — will have a disproportionate say in who will be the major party nominees for president of the United States in 2020.
Voters in most other states, including Colorado, will have much less to say about who the nominees are. How much influence the states that vote after Iowa and New Hampshire will have varies greatly from presidential election to presidential election. As for Colorado, we vote after four early-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Our primary is on March 3, “Super Tuesday,” along with more than 10 other states and territories.
The general pattern is that a candidate must finish in the first three in the Iowa caucuses to be a viable competitor in the subsequent presidential primaries and caucuses down the line. Almost everyone else is virtually eliminated from the race for the nomination. It is a case of “get through” to the Iowa electorate or your chance to be a major party candidate for president is pretty low.
This giant lift from finishing in the top three in Iowa is known as “the Iowa bounce.” It does not guarantee a candidate the party nomination, yet it does make her or him a viable candidate for the next several caucuses or primaries.
What is so special about Iowans that they get the privilege to have this tremendous influence in the U.S. presidential nominating process? The answer is there is nothing special about Iowa when it comes to picking presidential nominees. Moreover it is one of the least diverse states in the nation.
For Coloradans, it is a good idea while watching the Iowa caucuses to ask this question: Why do these Iowa citizens have so much power in the presidential nominating process while we have so little?
Iowa is first because their state legislators unilaterally made them first. In 1972 Iowa political leaders scheduled the state's presidential caucuses one day and a week before the New Hampshire primary. Instantly the Iowa caucuses became the heavily publicized starting point on the presidential primary and caucuses calendar.
The brilliant part of this maneuver was that Iowa chose to hold caucuses rather than a primary. The state of New Hampshire has a law requiring that the New Hampshire presidential primary be scheduled one week earlier than any other state's presidential primary. By deciding to go with caucuses, Iowa avoided having New Hampshire schedule its primary a week ahead of Iowa.
Iowa's political leaders also did a clever job of creating the kind of precinct caucuses that attract media attention. On a Monday night in January or early February, Iowa Democrats and Republicans make their way to their separate precinct caucuses, usually held at the local public high school.
In the Democratic Party, the caucus attendees break up into smaller caucuses supporting particular presidential candidates. An important rule is that, for a presidential candidate to gain any supporters at the caucus, he or she must have the support of at least 15 percent of the caucus attendees. Those caucus attendees who initially support a candidate who gets less than 15 percent of the caucus attendees can, if they wish (and most will), walk across the room and give their support to one of the more popular candidates.
Thus in 2008, we saw many supporters of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, after failing to get 15 percent, shift over to the Barack Obama camp.
Republicans in Iowa come together and simply write their choice for the GOP nomination on a slip of paper.
Iowans love the attention and prestige of their outsized impact on the presidential nominating process. An added dividend is that presidential aspirants and the media spend untold millions on motel rooms, meals, rental cars and television ads in the “Hawkeye” state.
The most famous Iowa winner was Jimmy Carter, the relatively unknown former governor of Georgia who, in 1976, spent the better part of a year campaigning all over Iowa. His surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses bounced him into the lead for the Democratic nomination and eventually into the White House.
But others have done well in Iowa and then lost out further down the caucuses-primaries line. In 1988 the two Iowa winners — U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for the Democrats and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas for the Republicans — lost in New Hampshire and were soon out of the running.
We are surprised that more Americans do not get upset that Iowans and New Hampshire voters and citizens of other early-voting states are so conspicuously overrepresented in the presidential nominating process. One reason is that the news media love the present system. The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and other early contests provide political events almost equivalent to the NFL Super Bowl. With such great media events on their hands, the news media are not going to be critical.
The “Iowa-New Hampshire first” system is unfair to other Americans — and that includes Coloradans.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy were longtime political science professors at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. They regularly write about Colorado and politics.