Why do Iowa and New Hampshire Matter?


After my previous post, a reader (I have one!) asked why we are so concerned about Iowa, and posited that it was because of the media fixation. To an extent, I would have to agree, but I think it goes a little further than that. Frankly, Iowa and New Hampshire matter because of the worst three aspects of American politics: shallow media, big money, and party control. They can also serve as a legitimate test for certain candidates, but not for all.

If you were to devise a system to determine the parties’ presidential nominees with the goals of fairness and representation, you would not start with Iowa and New Hampshire, and you would not start with a caucus. Both Iowa and New Hampshire are more white, more rural, more employed, and more conservative (each in their own way) than the rest of the country. In addition, Iowa chooses its delegates through a poll of the most ardent of the party faithful, rather than in any way similar to the way votes are cast in the election of electors that decides the next President.

Pundits like to cite the number of times that Iowa or New Hampshire has predicted the eventual nominee. Honestly, that’s a less-than-impressive statistic. Since the World War II there have been 16 Presidential elections, so there have been 32 nominating races for the two major parties. Of these 32, ten had incumbents running, though Ford and Carter faced major challengers. That makes a total of 24 contested nominating races since the end of World War II. On top of that, Iowa and New Hampshire set the tone for media coverage and campaign fund-raising for the rest of the race, so it’s rather like a first baseman betting on his own team to win a game — sure, he may get it right, but he does have some control over the outcome. I think it’s more telling that they get it wrong so often.

Without further pre-ramble, here are the three reasons that Iowa and New Hampshire matter:

Shallow Media:

The news media, particularly television news, covers politics like a horse race. It’s rare to have a reporter or anchor check a politician’s facts, or delve into the impacts of an policy or proposal. (If you want to find out whether a politician’s statement is truthful, I recommend Politifact.com, Factcheck.org, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker on-line column.)

In a horse race, somebody must win and somebody must lose. Even before Iowa and New Hampshire, the press focuses its coverage on those who are leading in the polls. Press coverage means free air time and greater name recognition. The winners find it easier to extend their lead; the losers find it harder to catch up.

Big Money:

There is not much more important in American politics than money. Remember that Barack Obama is said to have spent around one billion dollars in his 2008 campaign, and that’s just what his campaign spent. Individuals and groups supporting him also spent independently of his campaign.

Businesses and individuals don’t tend to give to candidates who they don’t think have a chance to win. Why would they? Even if we pretend that money doesn’t buy access, donors want their money to be spent effectively, and backing a candidate who will be running in the general election is the best way to do that. And, let’s face it, money does buy access — usually not results (directly), but it can get you in the door, where your ideas can be heard.

As a result, big money listens to the results of the polls. Again, the winners extend their lead, and the losers find it harder to catch up, if they don’t drop out entirely.

Party Control:

The way in which this affects the importance of the early contests is the most varied, and the Republicans this year have ceded some of it to their voters. The parties set the terms for the allocation of delegates from each state to their convention. For example, in the state of Washington, the Democrats can’t seem to decide whether to give any weight to the primary election (in a top-two primary state), or if they will only recognize the caucus results.

When delegates are apportioned on a winner-take-all basis, the nominee can be decided early, if they win enough contests by even a narrow plurality. In 2008, the Obama campaign was noted for knowing how the delegates were apportioned in each contest, and for investing the most time and money into those where he was likely to win delegates (and whether he would need to win overall in order to win those delegates).

In a winner-take all system, Romney would have received all the delegates from his win in Iowa. This year, the Republicans have decided that delegates will be apportioned proportionally. This means that Romney and Santorum should receive an equal number of delegates, and just a little more than Ron Paul. In theory, this should make the primary season longer. However, the field they have drawn seems to have staked itself heavily on the first four contests of the year, so the previous two factors may increase the importance of the early primaries, anyway.

In the end, Iowa and New Hampshire matter because the politicians, their contributors, their supporters, and the media have decided that they do, and act like they do. If they treated them as just the first contests of a long series (two of fifty), then they would be. After all, how many baseball teams decide that the season is lost after the first five games of the season?


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