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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
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In Defense of Iowa


Beating up on Iowa — and the Hawkeye State's Jan. 3 first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses — is once again in the Eastern Time Zone. Readers of The New York Times are urged to read the gifted Gail Collins' column so that they can "Feel Free to Ignore Iowa." If that's not enough, The Washington Post trumpets "The Idiocy of Iowa" in recommending Matt Miller's column. I emphatically disagree.

Iowa, we are told, is unrepresentative of the nation. The state's Republicans are more conservative and the state's Democrats more dovish than the respective national parties.

How politically unrepresentative is Iowa? "Let's," as the Happy Warrior, New York Gov. Al Smith, used to say, "look at the record."

In November 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote nationally, while in Iowa he won 54 percent of the popular vote. In 2004, George W. Bush carried Iowa with 50 percent of the vote and the country with 50.7 percent. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the U.S. popular vote by one half of one percent and Iowa by one third of one percent. Maybe then 1996?

That year, Democrat Bill Clinton captured 49 percent of the national vote and 50 percent of the Iowa vote. Tell me: How representative of the nation can one state be?

To listen to much of the coastal criticism (with more than a whiff of smugness) of Iowa, the state's residents are appealingly straightforward but — well, with the state fair and its butter sculptures — just not that sophisticated.

Could we have the envelope, please? Of the 50 states, Iowa has the second-lowest murder rate, the fifth-lowest rate of motor vehicle thefts, a poverty rate 36 percent lower than the nation's at large and the U.S.'s third-lowest divorce rate.

Iowa's public school students are tied for eighth in basic math skills.

With a high-school graduation rate of 90.5 percent, Iowa ranks sixth in the nation — and comfortably ahead of coastal powerhouses such as New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts. Oregon, Washington, Maryland and Virginia. Tied for fourth among the 50 states in percentage of its residents who are literate, Iowans are good citizens, too, ranking fifth among the states in voter turnout.

The critics may well be right. In education achievements, marital stability, infrequency of crime, as well as civic participation, Iowa is not representative of the United States. No, Iowa is better.

It's true that Iowa voters do take their first-in-the-nation responsibility seriously. They show up at candidate events, listen attentively and ask good questions. I always feel better, more optimistic, about America after I've been in Iowa.

One other reason to visit Iowa is to go to Waterloo, the home of the five Sullivan brothers — Joe, Matt, Al, George and Frank — who all enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 3, 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Ten months later, the Sullivans were all serving on the USS Juneau in the naval battle of Guadalcanal when their light cruiser was twice hit by Japanese torpedoes. All five Sullivan boys perished in the Pacific. National policy was changed to separate siblings in combat.

If you're anywhere near Waterloo, you must visit the Sullivan Brothers Iowa War Veterans museum. It's worth the trip.

Finally, if the state is so unrepresentative and so uncool, then how has Iowa — for 11 consecutive national elections — managed to keep its coveted first-in-the-nation, dominant influence in choosing our presidents?

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




3 Comments | Post Comment
Apples to oranges. The issue is what will Iowa primary voting do to the selection of a candidate, not who the average voter will go for once the candidate is selected. I doubt we are seeing Iowa's best in its candidate selection process. But who knows? Food for thought.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Thu Dec 29, 2011 9:12 PM
First, it's the Iowa caucuses, not primary. Second, the winners lately have included President Obama, party nominees John Kerry and Al Gore, President George W. Bush, party nominees John McCain, Bob Dole...
Comment: #2
Posted by: Dan McDermott
Mon Jan 2, 2012 8:13 AM
Allowing Iowa to winnow down candidates deprives the rest of us of a true vote.Pompous pundits like Shields pontificate about how Iowans are 'better' than the rest of us, when many Iowans still say someone who professes Mormonism shouldn't be President.How is that a demonstration of Iowans being better? They remain primarily small town, agricultural and white, when the majority of the US is now urban and of many more ethnic backgrounds.Shields further condemned whole states as being 'smug' because they dare to suggest that its unfair for those not representative of the US tohave so much power. I think its Shields who is smug. He and his ilk preach about how onlyIowans actually care about where the candidates stand - based on what information?! The reality is that covering politics in a state full of small towns is what these commentators find most comfortable. So called 'retail' politics can also happen in large states, using the internet. Shields is just defending what he wants, not waht might be best for the country as a whole.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Shana
Mon Jan 2, 2012 9:35 PM
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