There are more radical possibilities out there, however. In his new book, A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals To Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country (Walker & Co.), Sabato plugs a federal constitutional amendment that would create a regional-primary system similar to the one just mentioned. (Leave it to the states, he predicts, and the whole thing would just break down.) But there’s one big difference: in Sabato’s framework, New Hampshire and Iowa wouldn’t keep their current gatekeeper status. The first contests would be held, instead, in two yet-to-be-determined small states, which would be chosen at random every four years. At some point, New Hampshire would again get the honor of going first. But so would Rhode Island, and North Dakota, and West Virginia, and Wyoming. “They’ll tell you, in Iowa and New Hampshire, that they take their role so seriously,” says Sabato. “I’ve got news for you. Any small state that started the process would take it seriously.”
It probably would. Then again, maybe it’s time to rethink the very notion that starting small means starting better. After all, there’s something escapist and self-delusional about this approach. It’s nice to pretend — for a few months every four years — that America is one big small town, and that the success of our would-be presidents depends on their willingness to chat frankly with ordinary people in ordinary settings. Eventually, though, each and every general-election campaign shows how absurd this charade actually is. You don’t become president by charming a few people at a diner. You do it by raising obscene amounts of money, and spending it on the best pollsters and consultants and organizers you can find, and sticking to an airtight script for months on end, and blanketing the airwaves with ads that make you look better than you are and do the exact opposite for your opponent.
In theory, of course, starting with New Hampshire and Iowa gives unknown candidates a chance to come out of nowhere — relying on charm and hustle and word-of-mouth buzz — and force the nation to take them seriously. Invariably, though, this small-d democratic fantasy carries a decidedly undemocratic price: every time we elect a president, we allow the same two (tiny) states to winnow down the field for the rest of us. Yes, New Hampshire and Iowa offer valuable insight into key electoral groups (exurban independents in the former, Midwesterners and evangelicals in the other). But there are other states that could do this, and other constituencies worth considering. If New Hampshire’s current travails lead, ultimately, to the end of the state’s long ascendancy, presidential politics as we know them won’t be ruined. But they will be a little bit fairer.