The case for a single-day national primary

Matthew Walther

I cannot be the only person who has a hard time believing that the Iowa caucus is less than a month away. Not just because we are still in the middle of impeachment proceedings brought against a first-term president running for re-election, but because, with the exception of John Delaney (Google him), none of the candidates seem to be taking Iowa very seriously this year. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, has been in Texas; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been in New York (which doesn't hold a primary until the end of April). Former Vice President Joe Biden is busing surrogates around the Hawkeye state. Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg is simply pretending that Iowa and New Hampshire don't even exist.

This is a significant break from tradition. In past cycles many candidates have spent 100 or more days in Iowa in advance of the nation's first nominating contest. In 2008, then-Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) actually moved with his family to a home in west Des Moines. (In his only official attempt at securing his party's nomination, Dodd polled as high as 2 percent and received no delegates.) Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) made a point of visiting each of the state's 99 counties at least once. A rite of passage for younger journalists is spending the better part of a week at least attending events like the Iowa Pork Congress watching Carly Fiorina tangle with animal rights activists.

What was the point of all this, I wonder? The idea that winning Iowa is a necessary first step in securing the nomination of either of our major parties (and thus in becoming president) is ludicrous. And I wonder, frankly, whether it would not be a good idea to replace the present system with a single-day national primary in May or June.

In my lifetime, winners of the Iowa caucus who were not incumbent presidents have gone on to the White House all of two times. Meanwhile, Iowa winners like former Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) came nowhere near their parties' nominations, while Bob Dole and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would each lose in general elections by enormous margins. New Hampshire's record as the second would-be bellwether contest in the nation is no better: Only two victors in the Granite State have gone on to be president in the last 30 years (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016).

Don't get me wrong. I have a certain amount of affection for the quaint customs that surround campaigning in both of these states. The teeming thousands of gravel-voiced New Hampshirites who have had their pictures taken with every American president since Kennedy (to say nothing of everyone else to have run) are the salt of the earth. But I do not blame candidates for neglecting them in favor of delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, especially in a race that appears as wide open as the present one.

A single-day national primary would be a good thing for a number of reasons. The first is simply that it would allow more Americans to have a say in what candidates our major parties nominate. I have a great deal of affection for residents of both Iowa and New Hampshire, but I would be hard pressed to say that either is representative of the United States as a whole or especially deserving of the attention that is lavished upon them every four years. Making presidential nominations more democratic is, after all, the reason primary contests exist in the first place. Before 1972, primaries, if they were held at all, were essentially straw polls; nominees would be chosen by party insiders without regard for the outcome. It was only the outrage generated by Hubert Humphrey's nomination in 1968 that gave rise to the idea that actual voters should get to choose for whom they would be voting.

Second, and even more important, having a national primary would reduce the length of the campaign season. It would be a good thing for all of us if, instead of months and even years of speculation about how many bacon-wrapped blueberry pieces on a stick Joe Biden was going to eat, we could all vote in the primary of our choice on the same day, telescoping millions of words of pointless speculation into a single day.

This is why I have no patience with people who say that by replacing our current idiosyncratic system with a national primary we would be doing away with a venerable American tradition. The year of Our Lord 1972 is not exactly ancient history. Nor would it especially bother me if candidates who demonstrated their ability to appeal to a wide range of voters across the country were the ones representing us in presidential elections. This, after all, is what we hope presidents are able to do.

Editor's note: This article was updated since it was published to clarify how many times Dodd officially ran for president.

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