Why Iowa And New Hampshire Shouldn't Matter As Much As They Once Did

Jan 29, 2016

Credit Twitter / NHPR

Iowa and New Hampshire. Two states that don’t normally get a lot of attention. But right now you’d have to be holed up on an uncharted desert isle to avoid hearing about them, ad nauseam, in the news.

The reason is simple, the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primaries are the first votes for presidential candidates this year. But are they a good measure of who wins their party’s nomination – or how the general election will go in the fall? Not really.

This fact was clearly on display during the first Republican debate this month. Carly Fiorina was asked for her take on President Obama’s State of the Union speech. She began her answer by saying, "how honored I am to be standing here with two Iowa Caucus winners. Governor, senator."

That would be Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Rick Santorum, Fiorina’s sparing partners for the undercard debate that evening. The punch line fell flat. But the joke, that Iowans don’t always pick a winner, is true. Which is why William Frey says "this is a great time to be a political demographer, to understand all of these dynamics."

Frey is a political demographer at the left leaning Brookings Institution. He pours through census numbers, voter registration and other data to study categories of people according to education levels, income, and race. "If you look at the American electorate in 2016," he says, "it will be about 69 percent white, which means about 31 percent minority, of which 12 percent will be African-Americans, about 12 percent will be Hispanics."

When Iowans get their caucus on come Monday, that diversity won’t be seen. "We’re talking about, among eligible voters, 91 percent white." When the election moves to the Granite State, Frey says, it’s even worse. "If you look at New Hampshire it’s 94 percent white."

A diverse electorate means diverse views even on universal subjects. "So all Americans are going to be interested in, say, the quality of education for their children," says Adolphus Belk, a political scientist at Winthrop University. But he adds, "When you look at the schools that African-Americans tend to enroll in, those schools have challenges that are much more formidable than the challenges of your typical white American parent."

So what is the perfect primary state? The best microcosm of America as a whole? Frey says South Carolina, another early primary state comes close. But he says, you need to head up I-95 to find the best matches. "You know, Virginia comes closest in that regard."

I bet you thought he was going to say North Carolina. Nope. 

It's "not quite as close to the bulls-eye as Virginia," but he adds, "North Carolina is also a good measure, especially if you want to see a state where the African-American vote may have some impact among those minorities."

There is one way both Iowa and New Hampshire do really matter. No, it’s not their delegates to party conventions – those are important but the numbers are small. What they can do is give a campaign the big “M,”  momentum says Political Scientist Michael Bitzer. "And this plays a role in terms of where the money also goes because money is not going to follow somebody who comes in fourth, fifth or below."

Iowa and New Hampshire matter because they can weed out the weaker, unpopular candidates. But even this role of financial firewall may be crumbling. "In the past when you don’t succeed at getting first in your alleged firewall you’re out," says Scott Huffmon with Winthrop University, "now you can kind of fail and as long as you have leadership PAC, SuperPAC or 501(c)4 money you can actually hang in there and be the 13th man or woman in the game."

Iowa and New Hampshire do have one thing going for them best portrayed in song.

And tradition is a powerful thing. But any proclamations that victories there will mean a clear path to the nomination or the White House can be as precarious as...yup...a fiddler on the roof.