The Emperor’s New Caucus

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, Paul Simon 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, academe, and both political parties—as not only a watershed political event, but as a make-or-break moment for some (in 2004, after finishing behind Kerry and Dean, Gephardt immediately withdrew), what does it actually mean?  What does it tell us?

For example, in 1976, when eventual nominee Jimmy Carter had his ego bruised by finishing in second place, well behind “Uncommitted,” but way ahead of Birch Bayh, Morris Udall and Scoop Jackson, what did that mean?  You can’t say it necessarily meant that Udall was finished, that he was no longer in a position to attract donations, because even with his lowly 6-percent, Udall received twice the votes that Clinton did in 1992, and Clinton went on to win the nomination and presidency.  So what does it really mean?

Clearly, there is something terribly askew.  For openers, the argument can be made that any contest where Pat Robertson can finish as high as second place has to be fundamentally flawed.

In actual fact, there are no compelling arguments for Iowa.  There are only excuses and justifications.  The best argument you hear for continuing the Iowa caucus 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, presumably, because the primaries need to start in the Midwest, they may as well start in Iowa.

But that argument is twice flawed:  First, Iowa doesn’t start the primaries.  New Hampshire starts the primaries.  Iowa isn’t a primary; it’s a caucus.  Second, the Midwest doesn’t represent America.  The Midwest represents the Midwest….and even that is highly questionable.

If we’re looking for a state that truly represents America, it’s California.  And I say that as a seventh-generation native Californian.  With a population of 37 million, we not only have the most people, we have the most diversity.  We have significant numbers of Asians, African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Rim citizens, as well as others.   Everyone lives here.  As corny as the term is, we are in many ways a “melting pot.”

Consider:  While very few Californians have ever moved to Iowa, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Iowans have moved to California.  In fact, it’s very possible that, if we did the math, we’d find that there were more ex-Iowans or descendants of Iowans living in California than in Iowa itself.

But I’m not lobbying for California.  As diverse and representative as California is, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have the first presidential primary or caucus here because it’s still one state, and one state shouldn’t count for more than any other state by having the arbitrary 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 dampening the “snowball effect.”  There would be 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 based on what we know, just as we go to the polls and choose our president.  Why would that be difficult?  After all, given how early these candidates begin their campaigns these days, we would certainly have had enough time to judge their qualifications and reach a decision.

A National Primary Day could be thought of as a dress rehearsal.  As a playwright, I’m familiar with those.  When you do a play, you have 18-24 rehearsals followed by what is called “tech week,” where all the technical stuff—the light and sound cues—are integrated into the performance.  Then you have the dress rehearsal, where the actors get to wear their costumes, and to which selected guests are invited.

By dress rehearsal time, everything should be in place.  If you haven’t nailed it by now, you’re probably sunk, because you’ve had months to get it together.  The same would be true of the run-up to the election.  With all the coverage these campaigns get—the commentary, the paid ads, the Internet, the debates—if they’re not ready for National Primary Day, they don’t deserve to be elected.

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: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.