The Iowa Caucuses are mere days away, and that means two things. First, it means we all get to start our stories by saying "the Iowa Caucuses are mere days away." And second, it means that we get to stage the perennial argument over whether Iowa is representative enough of the country at large for it to have such an outsized role in determining the eventual winner of the presidential primary season.
There are a lot of reasons we have this argument, ranging from the way coastal elites who drive media coverage don't relate to Iowans, to the fact that the race in Iowa eventually becomes about how well each candidate survives their encounter with the ethanol lobby. Plus it's cold in Iowa in January and reporters hate going from there to the even-more-wintry New Hampshire to shiver and be depressed because they thought covering politics would be more glamorous. (Why they thought this in the first place is anyone's guess.)
There are also a lot of reasons the argument doesn't really go anywhere. For starters, Iowa -- along with New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- form a sort of early-state cartel that keeps everyone's traditional role in place. Threaten to jump the gun on one state and soon you'll have all these other states braying about how unfair it is and warning that they'll push their primaries into December.
Beyond that, it's not like any other state really has an solid argument about why it should go first, either. Put the question to the other states and there's a long pause as everyone nervously eyes everyone else. Eventually New Jersey says, "Well, if I could make a case for the Garden State," only to be interrupted by Montana, who says, "Not even, New Jersey. Not even." And then Jersey's all, "Well, Montana, do you really think you should go first?" And Montana stands up, arms wide, and exclaims, "Why not? Seriously! Why don't we start the primary season in beautiful Butte?" And then Oregon snickers, "Yeah, your mom told me to start in her beautiful Butte last night," because Oregon can just be such a child sometimes.
Thankfully, the American Prospect, with the assistance of a professor named Michael Lewis-Beck, settles the matter forever and proves Iowa is not an "outlier," using math:
Theoretically, if Iowa is a "perfectly" representative state economy, it should register a "typical" score on the factor: more specifically, it should score at the mean.
To test the hypotheses we observed how far the Iowa score deviated from the zero mean, in comparison to the other states.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Iowa score (-.02) rests virtually at zero, and nearer that ideal representative point than any other state. (Its rival in "first in the nation status," New Hampshire, lies away and in the other direction, at .26). On the economic dimension, then, the Iowa representation hypothesis is fully sustained. Once state economies are measured by multiple relevant indicators, Iowa is most representative of all the states. Its cross-section of economic forces, especially within the controlled context of the socio-political factors, best mirrors the general strengths and weaknesses at work in an American state economy. If one state must lead the presidential candidate selection process, then Iowa seems an ideal selection in terms of the economy. Identification of the preferred "first state" with respect to the economic dimension seems paramount, given the abiding importance of the economy for the vote generally in American elections (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2007).
So there you have it. Iowa is perfectly attuned, economically speaking, to begin the process for all of us, according to this professor from -- wait a minute -- The University of Iowa?
Okay, so, perhaps the debate will rage. One thing is certain, however: Should Ron Paul win in Iowa, the media will, to some varying degree, follow Chris Wallace's lead and declare the state to be "discredited." (Or whoever comes in second will be declared the "winner," by the headlines.)
[Hat tip: Dylan Byers]
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