Why Iowa Matters (Even If It Shouldn't)

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Iowa is an outlier. The 122,000 people who showed up to vote in the state's caucuses represent less than a fifth of registered Iowa Republicans and exactly 0.09% of the U.S. electorate. In a representative democracy, Iowa is not very representative. It is 91% white and has few Latinos, not many immigrants and low unemployment. Iowa is also the only place in presidential politics where retail campaigning can still make a difference. Jimmy Carter showed this back in 1976, and Rick Santorum followed the same playbook this year.

But Iowa matters, in part because the candidates and media put so much emphasis on it. Probably too much. We would all be better off with a regional primary system, but that's not in the cards. So after more than a year of polls, debates, position papers and commercials, we finally have actual people voting, which is the fundamental right in a democracy. That's really why Iowa matters.

If this week's cover feels a little familiar, there's a good reason for that. In early December, we put Mitt Romney on the cover and asked, "Why Don't They Like Me?" — a question that has been at the heart of the GOP primary process. This week, in the wake of Romney's razor-thin win in Iowa, we've updated and revised the question, using the other half of the same portrait of Romney. The first cover got a lot of attention, not least from Governor Romney himself, who began annotating the cover for those who asked him to sign it. Now the voters in New Hampshire and beyond can answer the question for themselves.