The Iowa caucuses are today, and next week we'll have the New Hampshire primary. A primary system that is front loaded with two of the least urban, least diverse states is pre-programmed to deliver a debate that is virtually irrelevant to most Americans, and produce candidates who never have to confront issues relevant to urban America.
It's a system that is designed to focus our attention on rural issues in the best years, and just plain nutty non-issues in the worst years (like this one), while ignoring the problems that affect most Americans in their daily lives. The vast majority of Americans live in urban areas, and yet cities are not even remotely part of the conversation.
It has been this bad since 1976 when Jimmy Carter made the Iowa caucuses relevant. But at least there was a time when candidates discussed real issues related to agriculture if not cities. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, got himself into hot water for suggesting that Iowa farmers try Belgian endive as a cash crop. And while it did come off as a little presumptuous for the man from Boston to be telling Iowans what to grow in their fields, at least he was talking about a real issue related to the local economy.
Contrast that with the topics that the Republican presidential candidates have talked about leading up to today's caucuses. A robust debate about farm subsidies, organic farming, agricultural exports, conservation programs, water policy and more would have been worthwhile. Instead, we got a competition centered on which candidate could appeal to the 100,000 or so Iowa caucus-goers who are much more white, rural and conservative than the average American. And those tended to be issues far out of the mainstream.
Most Americans couldn't care less who is the better Christian, who is tougher on immigration, who has more guns in their closet, who would eliminate the Federal Reserve, and who has the stronger position on electromagnetic pulse attacks.
But even a healthy dialogue in Iowa and New Hampshire wouldn't have centered much on urban issues because these aren't primarily urban states.
Imagine how different the discussion would be if the early primary states were New York and California or Massachusetts and Florida instead of Iowa and New Hampshire. Chances are, even in a Republican primary, we'd get some real discussion about transit and transportation, about urban redevelopment, about race and equity, about gun control instead of gun insanity.
This is a country that is primarily urban and increasingly urbanizing. Even in Iowa, 61% of residents live in places classified as urban, but that compares to 83% in the nation as a whole. And the percentages can be deceiving because even Iowa's biggest metro area, Des Moines, has only 570,000 people. None of America's 52 metro areas with over a million people can be found in Iowa or New Hampshire.
And Iowa and New Hampshire are far less diverse than the nation. Nationally, blacks and Hispanics make up nearly 30% of the U.S. population. But in Iowa they account for only 8% and in New Hampshire only 4%.
Look, this isn't intended to be a slam on Iowa and New Hampshire or rural life in general. My point is that the front-loading of the presidential nominating system in these two states for both parties creates this long campaign to appeal to voters who aren't all that concerned with the issues that confront the nation as a whole. And from the perspective of an urbanist, this leaves almost no time or space at all for a debate about issues most relevant to today's urban areas, where most of us actually live.
By the time the primaries hit the more urban states, either the nomination is sewn up, or the time allowed for a campaign there (maybe a week or two) is nothing like the year or more leading up to the opening contests.
It's time to rethink this whole system. Let's keep Iowa as a bellwether for Middle America and rural concerns. But let's substitute another more urban, more representative state with a primary within a week of Iowa, so that candidates can't escape confronting the real issues of cities and the concerns that most Americans face.