Man oh man, Rick Perry just can’t get out of his own way. Five days remaining in Iowa, two of the four candidates competing for that third ticket out of Iowa tanking…and he manages to embarrass himself again. This time, it’s by whiffing on the key gay rights case Lawrence v. Texas, which was not only decided in his own state while he was governor, but is of more than passing interest to the Christian conservatives who he has been campaigning for in Iowa as the caucuses approach.

Every time we get to this point in the process various pundits start complaining about the oddball sequential system that puts Iowa and New Hampshire at the beginning of the process…and at the end of the line for candidates who are winnowed out by those early states. We hear how small and unrepresentative Iowa is, and how few people participate.

Carter Eskew has a reasonable defense of Iowa, pointing out its function of winnowing the field, shaking up complacent frontrunners, and boosting deserving unknowns. All of which is true.

The best way to think of Iowa, however, is in terms of information. Party actors want to choose the best candidate. But that’s difficult in a large nation with generally non-hierarchical, networked political parties. Not only is coordination hard even when there are only small disputes between groups and individuals, but even finding out about the candidates isn’t all that easy. After all, there are dozens and dozens of potential candidates, and a typical activist in Montana or even a campaign consultant in Washington DC might not know all that much about all of those who wind up running. And even those who have observed the candidates don’t know how they’ll do on a national stage, which can be very different from campaigning in statewide races (or even smaller constituencies).

What Iowa does is it produces information. Are you a social conservative? Then find out which candidate(s) the Iowa social conservatives support. Worried about a candidate’s ability to handle the press? It’s hard to duck them in Iowa, certainly harder than in a nationwide contest. Want to whether voters will go for a Mormon, whether a candidate’s style plays outside of his region, whether a candidate who has been associated with rumors she’s a lightweight can step up in class? A sequential process that begins with small states, moving from one region to the next, provides useful clues.

The test of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina isn’t whether they are representative. It’s whether they produce the information that party actors want, do so in a timely way that allows them to incorporate that information into their decisions, and allow for co-ordination and orderly competition by party actors.Which gets back to Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty. Party actors learned, or believed they learned, something about Pawlenty when he was unable to convince Iowans to support him over the summer. They acted, and he dropped out. It appears that they’re going to learn that Perry, too, isn’t as strong a candidate as his resume suggests – or, if he rallies and winds up doing well there, they will learn that he’s stronger than he appeared in his disastrous debates. None of that means that Iowa dictates the nominee to the rest of the nation; after all, one of the main reasons Iowans vote as they do will be the effects of party actors, local and national, on the caucuses. It’s information, and party actors combine it with the other information they have to make their decisions.

Which seems like a reasonable system to me.