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What’s So Great About Iowa, Anyway?

Every four years, presidential candidates flock to the heartland to jockey for votes. Wouldn’t Illinois provide a better sample of the American electorate?

Pete Buttigieg works the grill with Peter Leo at the Carroll County Democrats Fourth of July Barbecue in Carroll, Iowa.   Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Three and a half years ago, I spent a wintry Sunday in Iowa on the eve of the 2016 caucuses. I started the day in Brewhemia, a coffee shop in Cedar Rapids, where I scanned the Des Moines Register and ate one of the state’s famous boxing glove-sized cinnamon rolls. The paper was cover-to-cover with rally reviews and previews. I calculated that I could make the day a triple-header: Hillary Clinton in Marion at 12:30, Marco Rubio in Cedar Rapids at 2, and Bernie Sanders in Independence at 5:30.

Iowa is the Coachella of politics — the place where no matter what, all the big names are on the bill.

Earlier this month, for instance, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg all showed up at Fourth of July celebrations in small towns across Iowa. As a resident of an adjacent and more politically important state, I have to ask: Isn’t that a lot of attention for a place with six electoral votes, no major league sports teams, no city with a population of more than 250,000, and seven times as many pigs as people?

Don’t get me wrong, Iowa has its merits. It gave Chicago one of its biggest tourist attractions, the painting American Gothic, which hangs in the Art Institute, and has also been sculpted in butter at the Iowa State Fair. In the Quad Cities, they serve pizza with sausage under the cheese. And then there’s the state dish, the loose meat sandwich, also called a Maid-Rite: dry, crumbly beef served between two buns.

But as even Iowans admit, their state is not typical of America. In a nation steadily becoming more urban and ethnically diverse, it is one of the whitest, most rural states.

“Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn’t at issue,” wrote University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom in The Atlantic. "It’s been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it’s going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it.”

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Iowa was never chosen as the nation’s first nominating contest — it just kind of happened that way. In 1972, the Democratic party instituted the primary system to take control of choosing candidates away from party bosses like Richard J. Daley.  Due of its multi-step method of choosing delegates, Iowa had to start that process earlier than other states.

Then, in 1976, an obscure Southern governor named Jimmy Carter won the Iowa Caucuses on the way to becoming president. Suddenly, winning Iowa became a requirement for serious contenders. In 2008, Iowa let America — and Hillary Clinton — know that Barack Obama’s candidacy was for real. (Obama, who always thinks a step or three ahead, had shrewdly been wooing Iowans for four years, making frequent visits to Moline and Rock Island to get his name and face on WQAD, the Davenport TV station that covers all the Quad Cities.)

So what’s the solution to vesting so much power in a state that’s the political equivalent of a Hummel-collecting grandmother who brings the same bean casserole to every Lutheran potluck? It may be right across the Mississippi River.

In a 2016 NPR story, reporter Asma Khalid considered several states that might be more deserving of the first-in-line status that Iowa currently hogs, comparing their demographics with national averages. Among them, based on factors like race and income, was Illinois. (As we’ve noted before, Illinois is the most typical American state, which would seem to make campaigning here the deal preparation for a national contender.)

Illinois is also much better at producing presidents than Iowa. We’ve given the nation Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan, who grew up in Dixon. In the most recent Siena College survey of presidential effectiveness, they rank 3rd, 17th, and 13th, respectively. Iowa’s lone contribution to the presidency is one-term flop Herbert Hoover, whose presidential library is in his hometown of West Branch. (Hoover, by the way, ranks 36th.)

On the other hand, do we really want to take away the main event that belies the old joke — that Iowa’s name is an acronym for “I Oughta Went Around"? And in Illinois, do we want a presidential candidate hanging out in every coffee shop and train stop across the state?

There are more than 20 Democrats running for president this year, which must be an unavoidable political pestilence, but it can’t be any worse than our recent mayoral election. Here in Chicago, we winnowed a field of 14 politicians down to a political outsider who promised change — a profile that also technically describes our most recent president.

I’d say we’re ready to take charge of the task of nominating a presidential candidate. Step aside, Iowa, and let a more average state take over.

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