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A Scott Walker aide resigned for bashing the Iowa caucuses. She's right: they're the worst.

Wind mills in a corn field near Colo, Iowa.
Wind mills in a corn field near Colo, Iowa.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Gov. Scott Walker's (R-WI) would-be presidential campaign aide, Liz Mair, has resigned for believing two completely correct things: the immigration views of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) are contemptible, and the Iowa caucuses are an anti-democratic travesty that must be stopped.

King is the House's leading demagogue on immigration; in the past he's claimed that "for every [DREAMer] who is a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they have calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," and that 12 Americans are killed by "murderous illegal aliens" and another 13 by "drunk-driving illegals" every day. Mair's take on him is pretty much dead-on:

Her views on Iowa — probably the main thing that got her in trouble — are also sound:

Mair is alluding to the commonly held view that Iowa's caucuses push presidential candidates toward backing wasteful ethanol subsidies they'd otherwise reject. It's hard to draw a straight causal line from the caucuses and the subsidies, but the subsidies are definitely bad. Ethanol requires growing corn in large enough quantities that water shortages sometimes result, and extensive fertilization causes nitrogen and phosphorous runoff into the Mississippi, with serious environmental consequences. Its production also pushes up food prices globally, putting desperately poor people in the developing world at risk of malnutrition.

While a number of observers think the issue is losing its potency in Iowa, Jamie Pindell of the Boston Globe notes, "Every winner of the Iowa caucuses since 1980 has supported ethanol subsidies in some way." And Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) is committed to keeping the issue central to the 2016 race; he formed a group, America's Renewable Future, that plans to "mobilize a pro-ethanol army of 25,000 people from each party to participate in the caucuses." Iowa may not be singlehandedly responsible for America's ethanol subsidies, but the caucuses probably make them harder to repeal.

But more concerning than any specific policy effects Iowa may have is the fact that it looks nothing like America. As of 2013, 87.6 percent of Iowa residents were non-Hispanic whites; only 62.6 percent of Americans overall were. Only 4.5 percent of Iowans are foreign-born, compared with 12.9 percent of Americans overall. The 2010 Census found that 64.02 percent of Iowans live in urban areas, compared with 80.7 percent of Americans overall.

The same critique applies to New Hampshire, for that matter, which somehow manages to be even whiter and more rural than Iowa. As Ben Adler once asked in the Nation, "How, exactly, is spending the most time kibitzing with a small, racially homogeneous group of people a more important qualification for the presidency than the metrics voters in other states would use to judge the candidates?"

It pains me a bit to make this argument. I grew up in New Hampshire, and it was pretty fun knowing I could meet basically any presidential candidate I wanted to, that I could go get breakfast at a diner and expect Wes Clark or Dennis Kucinich to show up, that the press conference that destroyed Gary Hart's 1988 presidential bid took place three blocks from my house. But objectively speaking, it's a really messed-up way to pick a presidential nominee.

The most that could be said in defense of Iowa and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation statuses is that they're epiphenomenal, that nominations are really decided via an invisible primary of party officeholders, activists, interest groups, and donors. In the most extreme version of that view, having Iowa and New Hampshire go first lets them have a little fun without actually giving them undue influence on the nominating process. But that's an implausibly strong view — presidential candidates certainly act as though Iowa and New Hampshire matter, and it's reasonable to think their party elites wield disproportionate influence in the invisible primary — and doesn't really offer up a defense. If going first is just a fun experience that doesn't matter, why not share it? Why not give Delaware or Hawaii a turn?

All of which is a long way of saying: Liz Mair is right. Steve King's views on immigration are terrible, ethanol subsidies are stupid, and the Iowa caucuses should be abolished. Maybe Scott Walker is correct in thinking he can't afford to acknowledge those truths, but Mair should be commended for keeping it real.

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