January 16, 2000
As the winter doldrums descend mercilessly upon us, and we contemplate the prospect that a Jacksonville-Tampa Bay Super Bowl may be the high point of the next couple of months, I have some encouraging news to report:
Guess what? They've decided to schedule a Presidential Election this year!
Presidential politics has always been among the most entertaining sports in this country, and luckily this year we've got some real tight contests to keep us amused for weeks on end. Of course, you understand the basic rules of the game for the "Primary" campaign, don't you? The Founding Fathers decreed in the Constitution that a handful of farmers in Iowa and garage mechanics in New Hampshire shall be given the privilege of rejecting all but a couple of candidates in each party, before anyone else gets to vote. This is not at all unreasonable, by the way. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:
"If a candidate shall be incapable, through the force of his Ideas and the Goodness of his Person, to persuade even the Boneheads of these two Godforsaken Wastelands to entrust him with their vote, he should have no further Audience with the educated and wise citizens of the Civilized States."
Thus we have before us the quadrennial spectacle of the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary. Your next question I can already hear, and no, I'm not referring to that joker in the back shouting "Who gives a flying f...?" What you need to know is: what is the difference between a Caucus and a Primary?
First, understand that there must be a difference, that this is a critical element of our entire democracy. For both Iowa and New Hampshire long ago passed ironclad laws which declare that they each must vote first in the presidential election cycle. Until they came up with the Caucus/Primary distinction, these conflicting laws caused the two states to keep moving their voting day earlier than the other -- so that the first ballots for the 1968 nominations were actually cast in 1962.
The solution came only after citizens of both states began to realize, "people in the rest of the country might start to think we're kind of stupid." So they hired outside consultants from Minnesota, chartering those "City Folk" to come up with a way that they each could continue to brag about being first in the nation to vote, with the express proviso: "so's nobody'll be laughin' at us all no more" (this clause was later negotiated out of the contract as being unrealistic). After a 9-year, $27-million study -- during which two elections took place that New Hampshire and Iowa ignored altogether, which explains Richard Nixon -- the Caucus-Primary Compromise was announced.
The plan is quite simple, and takes advantage of the natural conditions in each state. In Iowa, all the farmers and their kin have for generations gathered once every few years in various community halls and meeting places. The ceremonies traditionally coincide with the quadrennial Bath Day. Their main purpose is to introduce farmers' daughters to farmers' sons -- neither of whom have ever encountered the opposite sex before (of the same species, anyway) -- and through a time-honored ritual of square dances, hay rides, and romps through the corn fields, ensure that the clan is perpetuated for another few years.
This is the perfect environment to introduce Presidential politics, for obvious reasons. So, just before they ring the ceremonial cow bell, unleashing the frothing young'uns to a chorus of "Yee-Hah!", the Iowans now go through the exercise of publicly allying themselves with their preferred Presidential candidates. They do this by walking to the corner of the barn where there stands a cow or goat draped in a banner depicting the face of their chosen candidate. Political scientists suspect that there may be a certain degree of peer pressure influencing these decisions, a conclusion drawn from meticulous sociological research:
Poll taker: Why did you choose Candidate X?
Respondent: 'Cause Paw said to.
The Iowa Caucuses, therefore, are an exercise in true, down-to-earth democracy, with the community and the family collectively sharing in the experience, removed from the impersonal act of merely filling out a ballot. It is compatible with the spirit and traditions of Iowa, including the fact that most Iowans can't read or write, anyway.
The New Hampshire Primary, by contrast, is a straight vote, one ballot per pickup truck, which recognizes the fact that most New Hampshire citizens are indeed capable of forming the letter 'X', as long as the box is wide enough. The voters are also quite comfortable entering a small booth to do their business, as indoor plumbing remains a luxury of the few in New Hampshire. It does create a bit of a hygiene problem for the ballot counters, however (on top of the already difficult challenge of remembering what comes after "10").
New Hampshire tends to get more national media attention during the campaign, mostly because the reporters figure they can at least get in some skiing between filing insightful reports like "If Forbes can exceed expectations with 4% of the vote, it should give him new momentum..." New Hampshire also boasts a shining beacon in Dartmouth College, which all candidates inevitably visit at least 300 times during the Primary season. They usually claim it is the intellectual rigor and political sophistication of the students and faculty that draw them to the challenge of the Dartmouth campus. In unguarded moments, however, more than one candidate has been overheard to reveal the true attraction of the school: "Hey, at least the women have teeth!"
So, for the next several weeks, we can enjoy the drama and pathos of the shifting poll numbers, the the mesmerizing sound bites, the debates about debates (did you know that it is written into every reporter's contract that, in reporting on any political debate, he or she is obligated to use the phrase "there were no knockout punches"?), all the fun and shenanigans of the first Presidential election of the sort-of 21st Century. And therefore, as a service to my uncountable fan in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, I will provide over the next couple of columns a complete analysis of the candidates, the issues, the choices confronting America in this <yawn> vital election. Stay tuned. It's not as if you have anything better to do.
Recent ramblings: Today
The Top 100 Everything of the 20th Century (Pt.5) (11/29/99) The Knowledge (12/23/99) M2+3 You've waited, you've anticipated, you've longed and pined, and now at last it's here: the top of the top, the cream of the crop. In my household, I am the only one in possession of the Secret Knowledge: How to Unclog the Toilet. How did you celebrate the arrival of the New Millennium, or whatever it was?
(Click Elsewhen for the complete list)
© 2000 David N. Townsend
The Beanstalk grows out of my head, so to speak, but I welcome
any seeds that readers may wish to plant. Just as long as you don't use
too much fertilizer. Send me your comments, ideas, drool, at
and I'll occasionally respond to, publish, or otherwise dispose of them.
Need more? In addition to the rich and growing archives of this column,
you might want to visit The Site itself, and any of my other collections, on
Communication, Baseball, Rock 'n' Roll, or Travel.