Outside editorial: Reading Iowa: Don't get carried away by results

Posted: Monday, January 07, 2008

Don't get carried away by the results in Iowa. If there is one message we could emphasize from this most raucous of caucuses, that would be it. And although we acknowledge that it's unlikely to be heeded - after all, campaigns have spent tens of millions of dollars to woo voters here, and an army of 2,500 reporters descended on the state for the big event - it is a disservice to the democratic process to allot too much weight to the Iowa voting. After all, in both parties, caucus-goers were a small and unrepresentative sample of a small and unrepresentative state. Republican caucusgoers tend to be more socially conservative than their counterparts nationwide, Democrats more liberal. What sells to Iowa caucus-goers may not appeal to primary voters elsewhere - or to the independent voters who will account for a big slice of the electorate in November.

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There are certainly advantages to a system in which a few small states get first crack at assessing the candidates. In a mass-media age, it's important to retain some role for retail politics in which voters get to take the measure of candidates in person. But the caucus process in particular has flaws, which are magnified by the absurdly front-loaded and compressed 2008 electoral calendar. The requirement that voters be present at a specified time and place disenfranchises too many people: service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, elderly voters wary of venturing outside in the icy cold, parents too burdened with family responsibilities to devote hours to the process on a school night, working people scheduled to be on the job. In the Democratic caucuses, the results are further distorted by convoluted rules that allocate greater weight to rural areas and eliminate candidates who fail to reach a 15 percent showing of support.

Iowa did furnish useful lessons, as it always does. It gave former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee a chance to make his case for the Republican nomination, though he began far behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in fundraising. Among Democrats, the Iowa campaign provided useful testing and revealed differences in style, outlook and, at times, even substance. But as the campaign moves immediately to New Hampshire and quickly beyond, we hope the discussion on some issues also moves closer to usefulness. Both Romney and Huckabee sank to disappointing lows in their discussion of immigration. The apparent recovery of Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, from his political swoon of this summer offers some chance for a more enlightened discussion of this controversial topic as the campaign proceeds. Likewise, perhaps the Democratic debate will advance from its current crowd-pleasing rhetoric, whether about "ending" the war in Iraq or dumping the No Child Left Behind law, to grapple more seriously with some of the challenges that will face the next president.

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