What do Dick Gephardt, Tom Harkin and Mike Huckabee have in common? They all won the Iowa caucus. What do Steve Forbes, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Gary Hart have in common? They all finished second. In 1972, George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate finished third in Iowa; in 1988, Michael Dukakis finished third; in 1992, Bill Clinton finished fourth (with a microscopic 3-percent).
Even though the Iowa caucus has come to be regarded by everyone -- the media, the public, academe, both political parties -- as not only a watershed political event, but a make-or-break moment for some (as it was for Gephardt in 2004, when, after finishing behind Kerry and Dean, he immediately withdrew from the race) what does it actually mean? What does this glorified political sideshow really "prove"?
Consider: In 1976, Jimmy Carter finished second, well behind "Uncommitted," but way ahead of Birch Bayh, Morris Udall and Scoop Jackson. But what did that mean? We can't say it automatically meant that Udall was finished -- that he was no longer in a position to attract donations -- because even with his meager 6-percent, that was twice the percentage Clinton got in 1992... and Clinton went on to win the nomination. Also, the case can be made that any contest where Pat Robertson finishes as high as second place has to be fundamentally flawed.
In actual fact, there are no compelling arguments for the Iowa caucus. There are only excuses and justifications. The best argument you hear for continuing it is this one: "Hey, you have to start the presidential primaries somewhere, so it may as well be in the Midwest, because the Midwest best represents America." And, if we extrapolate, that Midwestern state may as well be the state of Iowa.
But that argument is twice flawed: First, Iowa doesn't start the primaries. New Hampshire starts the primaries. Iowa is a caucus, not a primary. Second, where is it written that the Midwest somehow "represents" America? At the very most, the Midwest represents the Midwest... and with today's fluid and contrary demographics, even that is questionable.
If we're looking for a state that truly "represents" America, that state is California. With a population of more than 36 million, we not only have the most people, we have the most diversity, with significant numbers of Asians, African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Rim citizens, not to mention dozens of other ethnicities and nationalities.
Moreover, while very few Californians have ever moved to Iowa, hundreds of thousands of Iowans have moved to California. In fact, it's very possible that, if we did the arithmetic, we'd find that there were more ex-Iowans, relatives of Iowans, or descendants of Iowans living in California than there are Iowans living in Iowa.
But I'm not lobbying for California. As diverse as California is, it wouldn't be fair to have the first presidential primary here. Why? Because California is still only one state, and one state shouldn't count for more than any other state. One arbitrary state (even one as "representative" as California) shouldn't have the advantage of supplying "artificial" momentum to a particular candidate.
What we need is a National Primary Day, where everyone across the country votes for the candidate of their choice on the same day. At least that would take some of the money out the equation by eliminating the "snowball effect." There would be no "domino effect," no corporate front-runners, no media heroes, no bandwagon favorites, no kiss-of-death losers, no comeback kids.
We would simply go to the polls and choose our nominee just as we go to the polls and choose our president. Same principle, same objective, same process. A National Primary Day wouldn't cure our system, but it would certainly improve it.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com.