Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Tiny Little Sliver

Gail Collins on why we shouldn’t pay attention to the Iowa caucus tonight.

People, ignore whatever happens here. The identity of the next leader of the most powerful nation in the world is not supposed to depend on the opinion of one small state. Let alone the sliver of that state with the leisure and physical capacity to make a personal appearance tonight at a local caucus that begins at precisely 7 o’clock. Let alone the tiny slice of the small sliver willing to take part in a process that involves standing up in public to show a political preference, while being lobbied and nagged by neighbors.

Ah yes, good work fighting for democracy around the globe, American troops, Pakistani lawyers, international election observers. The tiny slice of the sliver of the small state approves.

Tonight, the Iowa Deciders will divide into 1,781 local caucuses. Past history suggests that a few of these gatherings may not draw any attendees whatsoever and that several others will consist entirely of a guy named Carl. Attendance has no effect on the number of delegates involved, and we hardly need mention that the whole thing is weighted to give rural residents an advantage. Iowans in politically active neighborhoods where 100 people show up may find their vote is worth only 1 percent as much as, say, Carl’s. This gives them the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a New Yorker or Californian all year round.

The only reason Iowa matters is because we have been told by the pundits that it matters; ever since Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere in 1976 as a result of the Iowa caucuses, they have dubbed it as the Oracle of Davenport, and from there all political fortunes are writ. This is in stark contrast to Florida, which has a primary on January 29 (we do?), and yet you could fit all the people who are actively working for a candidate in the state in the back seat of my Mustang and leave room for the Old Professor. Florida is a much more populous state and much more a microcosm of the nation in terms of race, ethnicity, economics, and diversity in political leanings (Panhandle Republicans vs. South Florida Democrats) than just about any other early primary state outside of California, and certainly more a true reading of the nation’s political leanings than Iowa or New Hampshire. Yet thanks to the suicidal tendencies of the DNC, the Florida primary will be seen as little more than an oddity, like the two-headed turtle at the petting zoo. The only visible campaign signs I’ve seen here in Miami have been some Ron Paul posters on an abandoned building. That pretty much sums it up.

Iowa shouldn’t matter, but it does because we Americans tend to cling to the little things as being symbolic of something larger. And the people of Iowa are no fools. They have turned this one night of grass-roots political pot-luck into a major force in their economy, and they’re enjoying the attention (although they would never admit it, Iowa stubborn being what it is). And you can be sure that a year from now, someone, somewhere in Van Meter or Winterset or Le Mars, is going to sign a lease on a storefront for some senator or former governor for the 2012 caucuses, and get Carl’s name, address, and e-mail address loaded into his BlackBerry. Sic semper slivers.