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Virginia belongs at the top of the presidential-election calendar

By Stephen J. Farnsworth,

The time has come to break the tyranny of Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nomination process, and Virginia is just the state to do it.

Virginia is far closer to the United States in miniature than either of those two places — or, for that matter, Nevada or South Carolina, two other favored states on the 2012 nomination calendar.

In Northern Virginia, the commonwealth has a version of the ideologically liberal Northeast as well as a replica of Silicon Valley. The commonwealth has its own Sun Coast and an industrial heartland in Hampton Roads, and it has a variety of politically and culturally distinct urban and suburban communities along Interstates 95, 66, 81 and 64. Other parts of the state are populated by farming communities and small towns that call to mind the Great Plains and the South. The state has substantial numbers of Christian conservatives and Tea Party supporters as well.

But there’s more. Population statistics demonstrate the demographic advantages of the Old Dominion over the first two nomination states. Virginia’s population is about 69 percent white, while the figure for Iowa and New Hampshire is higher than 90 percent. The national population is about 72 percent white.

Many of today’s Virginia voters came here from somewhere else, and many of them are active-duty or retired military families. They add regional diversity to the electorate — another reason the Old Dominion deserves to be at or near the head of the line.

Iowa and New Hampshire try to sell the rest of the nation on the idea that they represent the last vestige of Norman Rockwell’s America, where deliberate, sober voters offer a grateful nation their carefully considered preferences.

In fact, the process is more Norman Bates than Norman Rockwell. Iowa often favors an extreme candidate, and New Hampshire generally turns to a well-funded, media-friendly candidate. (Plus, this year Iowa demonstrated that it can’t count.) Why should these two small states have such outsize influence?

To put things into context, the 122,000 votes cast in the 2012 Iowa GOP caucus is fewer than the number of votes cat in November in the race to lead the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The votes for that one Fairfax race, plus those for two other contests — Henrico County sheriff and Stafford County commonwealth’s attorney — exceeded the 249,000 votes in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

Playing by rules that favor far less representative states gets Virginia nowhere. The Old Dominion is one of 10 states voting this Tuesday, and it will likely get little attention in that mad rush. Indeed, the GOP candidates showed their indifference to the state during the ballot qualification process; only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul managed to collect enough valid signatures.

New Hampshire and Iowa will not allow this twisted process to be altered without a fight, but Virginia and other purple states should stake their claims to being first in 2016. Ideally, Virginia could take the lead in creating a multi-state coalition to end the undeserved special status of those first two states. Politicians in Florida and Michigan won’t need a lot of convincing to sign on, and others would also see the appeal. A whole group of states could not be easily ignored or punished.

With Virginia helping to create a “Nomination Spring” reform, the United States could even move to a primary schedule lottery or a regional primary system that would give at least one of the 48 states not named New Hampshire or Iowa a chance — for once — to vote on a full candidate field.

The writer is professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, where he directs the university’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.

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