WASHINGTON, Iowa — On a bright but chilly afternoon last weekend, Dale and Carrie Evans drove an hour from their Cedar Rapids home to squeeze into an overcrowded public library here and listen to a candidate who might be their second choice for president.
The couple was planning to support Joseph Biden in the Iowa caucus that formally began the race for the presidency Thursday night. But they feared that Biden might not attract enough votes in their precinct to reach the state Democratic Party's 15 percent threshold for winning delegates. So they trundled to Washington to hear John Edwards, just in case they needed to switch in the second round of balloting.
That level of commitment isn't unusual among the Iowans who participate in the caucuses. The Des Moines Register recently reported on one local woman who had attended 65 events with presidential contenders. Most Americans wouldn't attend 65 political events if they were held in their own living room.
Local politicians often present stories like these to defend Iowa's pre-eminent role in the nominating process. And, in fact, it's difficult to imagine that voters anywhere else would devote more time, energy, and study to the candidates.
But Iowa's influence in selecting the presidential nominees has nonetheless grown indefensibly disproportionate. In all measures of candidate commitment -- time, staff, spending -- Iowa has utterly eclipsed every other state. All Democratic candidates and most Republicans (except John McCain and Rudy Giuliani) have even devoted more attention to Iowa than to New Hampshire, the other traditional early milestone. In December, presidential candidates were sighted in New Hampshire about as often as sandals and shorts.
Two factors have tilted the campaign focus so dramatically. Most important is the compression of the nominating calendar. Because the states are now packed so tightly together (with more than half voting by February 5), toppling the first domino in Iowa has become more important to the campaigns. New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner inadvertently reinforced that calculation when he set his state's primary date for January 8, just five days after Iowa. "They created a situation in which people there are most likely to just validate what happens here in Iowa," frets one senior Democrat.
The second factor that has elevated Iowa is the explosion of political coverage on mainstream media Internet sites, partisan blogs, cable television, and talk radio, most of it focused not on the candidates' experiences or ideas but on the status of the race. The campaigns' common fear is that this swirl of commentary will generate an irresistible surge of momentum for the Iowa winner, the way that the Santa Ana winds fuel a California brushfire.
There's no guarantee that other states will second Iowa's verdict. In the Republican race, particularly, New Hampshire has a long tradition of rejecting the Iowa winner. But strategists on both sides watched an unexpected Iowa win propel John Kerry through a compressed calendar to the Democratic nomination last time as if he were launched from a rocket. Fear of a repeat has planted the candidates in Waterloo and Muscatine.
The most common complaint against Iowa is that a virtually all-white farm state doesn't represent the ethnically diverse, Information Age United States. That's true, but it wouldn't matter as much if Iowa shared its influence more equitably with other, contrasting, states. The issue isn't whether Iowa voters are the right group to exercise this much influence. The real question is whether any single group of voters should exercise this much influence.
Even Iowans appear uneasy. Jim Larew, a state government lawyer, says that in his final calls for Edwards to undecided Iowa voters, people were "agonizing" because they realized their decisions might essentially choose the nominee. That's not only too much opportunity to provide to one state; it's too much responsibility to place on one state.
The best way to dilute Iowa's influence is to restore more breathing space between the primaries, perhaps through rotating monthly regional contests. That would dissipate waves of momentum and allow voters in later states more time to make independent judgments. At Edwards's event here, Doyle Geyer, a teacher, shook his head at the power now ceded to Iowa voters like himself. "It's kind of crazy," he said. So it is.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.