Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Is Iowa the problem, or is it the primary system?

While I was home in the US over the past few weeks I witnessed the quadrennial spectacle of the Iowa caucuses - shivering reporters in front of the capital dome in Des Moines, candidates eating corn on the cob while clutching plump cord-fed babies, the usual fare. And I was also able to witness the quadrennial griping about why the United States allows “a few hundred farmers” to pick its president.

The complaining about the Iowa caucus, where the first nominating primary for both political parties’ presidential candidates is held, is both predictable and legitimate – even if the language used sometimes smacks of regional snobbery. The Iowa caucus makes or breaks politicians running for the presidency. Barack Obama owes his presidency to winning the Iowa Democratic caucus in 2008. This year, the result of the Republican caucus will force Michele Bachman and Rick Perry to drop out of the race. And the Iowans have elevated Rick Santorum from obscurity to be the main challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

But the Iowa caucus is a big deal only because it is first. And being first means presidential candidates promise Iowa all sorts of lovely things (just look at the corn subsidies of the past four decades – and you wonder why Americans have corn syrup in most of their food for no reason?). The Iowans go through outrageous lengths to make sure they are first. When South Carolina and New Hampshire tried to move their primaries ahead of them this year, Iowa moved theirs to the earliest possible day in 2012 – 3 January.

This year the criticism went perhaps a little too far. A professor at the University of Iowa (himself a transplant from New Jersey) wrote a column for The Atlantic about a much-asked question – why should a state that is not ethnically or ideologically reflective of the country as a whole be given such a prominent role in selecting the nation’s president? But he asked it in a way that was incendiary to say the least, calling Iowa a place that's "culturally backward" and teeming with "slum towns”, where the 96% white population “clings to guns and religion.”

The article spawned a firestorm of criticism from Iowans, the best of which was this video posted on YouTube. ‘He’s an elitist East Coast liberal snob!’ the Iowans cried. But whether or not his observations were accurate (he has lived in Iowa for 20 years and has written two books about the state), the larger point seemed to be lost amidst all the name-calling. Does this system, in which a small group of people in early primary states choose presidential nominees through government-organised elections, really make sense?

An American peculiarity

What is rarely brought up in these discussions about Iowa is that choosing party nominees by public vote is neither a long-standing American tradition nor a common worldwide practice. In fact America is the only nation to choose its leaders based on an extensive system of popular vote primaries. US states only gradually began doing so starting in the early part of the 20th century as a response to the Progressive movement. Before then party nominees were selected by parties themselves – which is the way they are still selected in the vast majority of the world’s democracies.

Nominees used to be selected by party members on the floor of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Now the open primaries have made the conventions mere political theater, with the nominee actually having been selected long before they are held.

Here in Europe, there is no country that systematically chooses party nominees by popular vote, though a few parties in Europe have experimented with it. Nominees are instead selected by party members or officials (the equivalent of the Democratic and Republican National Committees choosing their chairman). The main reason for this is that most countries in Europe are parliamentary democracies, and the head of government position is awarded to the leader of whichever party wins the greatest number of seats in parliament.

It would therefore be a bit awkward to poll the general public to select nominees, because party leadership contests don’t usually happen at the same time as the general elections that determine a country’s leader. Sometimes a party leadership contest can even replace a sitting prime minister without a public vote – as occurred in 2007 when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as prime minister of the UK.

Of course that awkwardness hasn’t stopped some of Europe’s Socialist parties from trying the concept a few times, but it has never worked very well. In 2005 the centre-left Olive Tree coalition organised an open primary to elect a candidate to challenge Silvio Berlusconi in the April 2006 election. That public vote chose Romani Prodi, who then went on to defeat Berlusconi. But the open primary was largely considered a messy failure, because it didn’t reflect the political realities of the Italian parliament. Prodi was toppled from power two years later after he lost the support of the Communists.

It isn’t just the differing parliamentary system which has kept most Democracies from adopting US-style primaries. Even most presidential democracies with the same system as the US don’t hold regular open primaries to determine candidates. In fact the only presidential systems to do so are Chile, Uruguay and Taiwan.

In France, which is the only EU country to have a presidential system like the US, the practice was used for the first time in October of last year by the Socialists (the main centre-left party) to select their nominee. The party organised the polling itself, and anyone who was registered as a Socialist could vote by paying €1 to cover the costs. About three million people participated and they selected Fran├žois Hollande, the former partner of their 2007 nominee Segolene Royal, as their candidate.

But the public vote was widely criticised for not being compatible with the French political system and for turning French politics into an American-style piece of theatre. Many argued that France’s two-round system of voting make primaries redundant. The country has many political parties that each field a candidate in a 1st round, which whittles the field down to two candidates for the final round. Given that the political spectrum is still dominated by the two main parties (the Socialists and the UMP) it is debatable how much this first round really represents a ‘primary’ as we think of them in America.

Do primaries produce the best candidates?

Of course, just because the rest of the world doesn’t do it doesn’t mean that open primaries are a bad system. And if you believe in American exceptionalism, then the very fact that the US is alone in this practice means it is a good thing to do!

But before ganging up on the Iowans perhaps people should ask themselves if having public primaries at all makes sense. It’s not the Iowans fault that they happen to be the state which is the most skilled and aggressive at putting themselves first in this process. After all, if it wasn’t Iowa then it would be another state going first and determining the shape of the race. And while there are certainly other states that are more reflective of America as a whole, is there really any one state that could legitimately claim to represent the whole nation?

One could argue that maybe every state should hold their primaries on the same day. Such a change would certainly turn the whole primary system on its head, given that it’s geared around a building momentum and a slow testing of how a candidate performs before you cast your vote. But what if candidates were chosen instead only by members of the Republican/Democratic National Committees?

Such a change would likely not be very popular – once you give people the power to vote over something it’s nearly impossible to take it back. But if party officials were choosing candidates, does anyone really believe we’d be seeing candidates like Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain? Would a candidate like Mitt Romney have to be running around the country disavowing virtually every position he’s ever taken in his previous political career as Massachusetts governor in order to be electable by deeply conservative Republican primary voters? Party officials could choose someone who is appealing to the entire electorate, not just to a narrow base. And they could choose the most competent person who would make the best leader rather than just a person who can win votes (ideally at least).

Let’s face it, watching this Republican primary process has been like watching sausage being made. And I’m not sure you’d want to eat the sausage that came out of the process even if you hasn’t seen it created. It’s been an absolute farce, from the 13 debates (and 10 more to go!) which managed to discuss almost nothing of substance despite the over 100 hours of talking, to the circus-like sideshow of Cain’s sexual misconduct. Who actually thinks this is working well?

The primary system’s most ardent defenders, such as New York Times columnist David Brookes, say they still produce the best candidate because they show who can stand up to the rigours of a campaign and who can connect the best with the public. But given that any candidate chosen by the party itself would surely have already held office and would therefore have gone through a campaign, wouldn’t that information already be evident?

Let’s not forget that these primaries are organised at great expense to the taxpayer, since they are (in most cases) organised by the states rather than by the party. Perhaps the most painful part about watching this Republican primary process is knowing that I’m paying for it. Well, not any more, but if I was a US taxpayer I would be. And don’t forget, primaries aren’t just held for the presidency. They’re held for almost every political office.

That’s a lot of money, and that's just the public money. People can go on about the illusion of 'old-fashioned democracy' that plays out at these Iowa caucuses held in high school gyms with paper ballots and discussions, but that masks the fact that an obscene amount of private money is now being spent on this caucus. In 2008 candidates spent $52 million trying to be elected in the Iowa caucses. This year, Rick Perry alone spent a staggering $817 per voter in Iowa. Is there anyone who would really argue that this money couldn't be better spent elsewhere? How about if Rick Perry gave each of those people $817 to spend on heating their homes?

Inane distractions

The public primaries also have the effect of drawing out the presidential campaign to two years in length, meaning a first-term president spends half of his term campaigning for reelection. These primaries eat up so much air time and so much political focus that they distract from other more important things. In Europe campaigns usually last one month, because elections aren’t called until one month in advance. In the US, the news networks started reporting ad nauseum about the 2012 election at the beginning of 2011.

As we sit at the precipice of the greatest global financial disaster the world has seen since the Great Depression, the US media has spent the past year talking about Herman Cain’s groping, Michele Bachmann’s pray-the-gay-away therapy and Rick Perry’s inability to make a list of more than two things. If the US let the parties go back to selecting their nominees themselves at their conventions, we wouldn’t start the election process until the Spring of the election year, which seems wholly appropriate.

In France, where the 2012 election will be in April, intensive media coverage began earlier than usual this year because of the Socialist’s first nominating public vote in October. It was another complaint made by the French about the country’s first open primary – it took up too much media attention too far in advance of the actual contest. But if France is going to adopt a US-style presidential open primary system, they can expect longer and longer campaigns in the future, with plenty of accompanying debates and distractions. Le Herman Cain anyone?

I don’t think the French want that. And, really, I don’t think the Americans want that either. But at the same time, it’s hard to see the US changing the system. Change doesn’t come easily to the world’s oldest government.

No comments: