Last week I appeared as a guest on Nevada's largest public radio station, knpr to talk about the primary and caucus calendar mess, which is unfolding because some states' Republican parties have openly challenged the traditional calendar and tried to beat out Iowa and New Hampshire as the first and second states to hold nominating contests.
I am, of course a believer in the tradition that has been in place since the 1970s – Iowa first, New Hampshire second separated by a week to give the candidates time to transition from one to the other and campaign in depth.
Iowa is a small state where unknown and unfunded candidates for president can test the waters and experiment with a campaign theme. You don’t need to buy any TV or expensive media of any kind. It’s retail politics, door to door, town-by-town shaking hands and meeting with real voters. Candidates cannot BS their way through any questions - they have to answer honestly face-to-face.
New Hampshire is also a small state, but it tests a candidate's skills in a primary campaign that has somewhat more media, is less intimate than a caucus, and allows independent voters to vote. That is a huge reality check for the coming November general election where it is independents voters unaffiliated with either party - who have a large say in who ultimately gets elected.
It's a truly democratic process, one which allows ordinary folks to make a choice and at low cost to a wide variety of potential contenders.
As I told the Nevada audience, if we upset the order of things I am not convinced that Nevada would become the new Iowa - first in the nation. Instead I believe that the whole process will be redesigned, and the outcome will be either regional primaries or one big national primary.
If that happens the small, grassroots aspect of presidential selection will be discarded. Only candidates who come loaded with big money and a professional organization will have any chance. That would diminish the character of how we have run the process since the 1970s.
Another alternative is that we will scrap the national sequence of caucuses and huge, big state primaries altogether. They are VERY time consuming and extremely expensive. (Imagine what a California primary costs).
In these lean times we may decide that party leaders – elected officials, big donors, party bosses and others – will once again meet in smoke-filled rooms and choose the candidates they feel will be most electable in the general election. After all, that process worked very well for a long, long time and was very pragmatic and cost effective. The downside, of course, is that it wasn't democratic.
Yet another choice is to keep the small scale of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and then afterwards, start a round of four or five regional primaries. This would wrap up the delegate selection in a timely manner and then allow the winning candidate to build a war chest and campaign organization over the summer.
My Nevada friends wanted to know what the big deal is with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner that he insists on the order of things and spacing between events. My answer was that once you start messing with rules whether in sports or politics, there is no end to other changes and practices until you’ve twisted the process sufficiently out of shape that it will be damaged and then ultimately thrown out the window.
For the sake of an orderly tradition and a grass roots democratic chance for ordinary voters to at least get the process of presidential candidate started, I think the current system is very functional and a real American democratic tradition.
Steffen W. Schmidt is University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University and Chief Political Correspondent of Insider Iowa.