Iowa is 92 percent white, loaded with Christian evangelicals, a farm state where ethanol is a burning issue and a state with few major urban areas. So, why should Iowa play such a significant role in choosing the next president of the United States?
If history repeats itself, it might not. The legend that Iowa is a springboard for the presidency rests solely on the example of Jimmy Carter, whose win in Iowa propelled him to the nomination and, ultimately, the White House.
But he is the exception. Few winners in Iowa have become president; in fact, few even have gone on to win their party's nomination.
So, the idea that Thursday's respective winners -- Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee -- now are shoe-ins or even certain front-runners for the nomination is questionable based solely on this one victory. Nonetheless, both candidates must be thinking that winning Iowa is better than coming in second.
Emphasis on the influence of Iowa and the other smaller states holding primaries in the next few weeks is certain to fuel the old debate about excluding larger states from the early primary roster. Why shouldn't heavily populated states such as California and New York have early primaries?
But some of the old arguments for letting smaller states go first still seem valid. Iowa and New Hampshire offer the candidates a chance to exercise retail politics, meeting personally with voters in cafes, school auditoriums and people's living rooms. It gives voters a chance for a close-up look at the candidates and a chance to assess them on a much more intimate level than is afforded by a 30-second campaign commercial.
By contrast, that kind of politicking would be largely impossible in California or New York. While candidates still would kiss babies and press the flesh in large states, the only way to reach large segments of the population is through televised debates and paid advertising -- which gives a distinct advantage to the candidates with the biggest campaign chests.
In South Carolina -- which holds its GOP primary on Jan. 19 and its Democratic primary on Jan. 26 -- the campaign will move for the first time to a Southern state with a large African-American population. Nevada, which also has a primary on Jan. 19, has strong labor unions and a large Hispanic population. Both states will add some diversity to the primary campaign.
These early primaries may not be pivotal in the race for the nomination. Republican Rudy Giuliani is betting they won't be, staking his hopes on a win in Florida on Jan. 29 and a strong showing on so-called Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when 22 states, including New York and California, hold primaries or caucuses.
But winning in the early states might also help strengthen the perception of a candidate as the anointed one, the one with momentum. Sen. Joe Biden, who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in Iowa, predicted early on that whoever wins in South Carolina will go on to win the nomination.
So, perhaps the voters of the Palmetto State will have a big say this year in who runs for president. It is certain, at the least, that the state will see more of the candidates in January than it will the rest of the year.
Will the Iowa caucuses be seen as a catapult to victory this year? Obama, it seems, has real reason to be buoyed by his substantial win there. He finished more than six points ahead of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, who was relegated to third place.
That helps shatter the notion that Clinton's nomination is inevitable. Obama also did well among independents and all demographic groups, including the women voters Clinton had counted on.
Small states or not, Obama victories in New Hampshire and/or South Carolina would give him a real boost.
Should an unrepresentative state such as Iowa have a big say in choosing president?
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