DES MOINES, Iowa — Just hours before the first vote of the 2008 presidential campaign, the world waits breathlessly with one question.
Not who's going to win Iowa's caucuses Thursday night. No, the question on the minds of people watching from afar is: Why Iowa?
Why should such a tiny state get such a big say in picking the president?
A farm state where the local museum feels compelled to boast, "More than just pigs and corn." A place where the epicurean high point of the state's biggest gathering, the state fair, is fried pork on a stick. A state without a major-league sports franchise, for heaven's sake.
A state where the people are as white as the snow-covered landscape, devoid of the minorities who are changing the country's complexion. A place where people graduate from school in record proportion, and live long, healthy lives.
It is, to many Americans, a foreign place.
And yet, when a sliver of this small, unrepresentative state's population votes Thursday night, the national news media will immediately pronounce winners and losers. Some candidates will claim momentum that the elder George Bush in 1980 called the "Big Mo," while others will go home and drop out. The course of American politics will be changed.
"Makes no sense," Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said to his hometown paper.
It's not exactly the system that anyone thinking objectively would design to pick the leader of the free world.
For example, even with a big turnout this Thursday, experts expect 87,000 Republicans and 125,000 Democrats at most to vote in a state with 3 million people. That's a very thin slice of 300 million Americans.
But that's a lot more people than the party bosses who used to pick candidates. That's the way it was before Vietnam-era revisions.
And somebody has to vote first.
Why not Iowa?
For one thing, it's small enough that candidates can meet people face to face in living rooms and coffee shops. Those people ask questions about what's on their minds, not necessarily what the news media think is important or what the campaigns have polled and researched. For example, one person asked Mitt Romney why his sons weren't serving in the military and he flubbed the answer.
"We have our feet on the ground," said Melvin Kiner, a retiree from Altoona. "We have people who work for a living, treat their neighbors right, have a good strong work ethic. What's wrong with that?
"The people on the coasts are a bit enamored of themselves. But when they want something to eat, they come to us."
"Driveway philosophers," in the words of Garrison Keillor, people who lean on the hoods of their cars and debate the problems of the world with one another.
Even if they're small-town folk, they don't ask Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama about pork bellies.
"The issues of concern to Democrats in Iowa are pretty much the issues of concern to Democrats nationally," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "The same is true for Republicans."
The state isn't representative of the country, but no state is a perfect cultural, demographic and economic sample.
Michigan? Is the country as dependent on the auto industry as Detroit is?
Florida? Is there any other place where Fidel Castro matters much?
Nevada? Is the Las Vegas Strip the same as Main Street?
Flawed as the nominating system is, it's pretty good.
Perhaps the bigger problem is in how the rest of the country — and the world — reacts to Iowa.
Start with the media.
First, they descend on Iowa like locusts. Often there are so many TV cameras around a top-tier candidate they become like a wall dividing politician from voter.
"In their attempt to cover a story, the various news media create an overwhelming presence and obstacle," concludes a new exhibit on the caucuses at the Iowa State Museum.
Second, the media pronounce instant winners and losers — even though Iowa's caucuses are just the first step in picking delegates who'll vote for a nominee the following summer — and Iowa's delegates represent less than 3 percent of those needed to win either nomination.
Unable to say that a candidate won enough delegates to lock up the nomination, reporters and pundits play an "expectations" game. They predict how many votes a candidate is expected to get, then declare winners or losers based on whether they meet, exceed or fall short of media expectations.
Thus Walter Mondale won Iowa in 1984 by 48-16 percent over Gary Hart, but was widely declared the loser.
"Reporters love to moan about Iowa's role," Goldford said. "But it's you guys who made Iowa. There's a co-dependency between the candidates and the media."
Finally, Iowa's only as important as voters in other states allow it to be.
In 2004 Democrat John Kerry came from behind, won Iowa, then swept the nomination everywhere.
Yet voters elsewhere often have rejected Iowa's choices. In fact, winners of contested caucuses in Iowa have gone on to win the presidency only twice since the caucuses started in 1972: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000.