Democracy Lost: the Iowa Caucus, the New Hampshire Primary, and the Shortchanging of American Presidential Politics

by Sheahan Virgin // Published January 10, 2012

Photo Credit: lividity101

Though the process by which the major parties select their nominees for president has democratized considerably since the bygone days of the ignominious “smoke-filled room”—within which powerful, deal-cutting party barons, rather than voters, determined the national ticket—it remains a system that inequitably prioritizes certain citizens over others.

Today’s barons in the primaries are not party elites puffing on cigars, but everyday voters in Iowa and New Hampshire—farmers, schoolteachers, laborers, and small business owners transformed into political kingpins—who have the good fortune to live in states that host the first two electoral contests in the nomination battles of both major political parties.

Alarmingly, Iowa and New Hampshire comprise just 1.4% of the national population, and neither is demographically representative of the nation, being 91.3% and 93.9% white, respectively. Yet despite being neither populous nor diverse, every four years Iowans and New Hampshirites wield tremendous power, determining for the nation which presidential candidates are allowed to continue on and which are instructed to close shop and go home.

The reason is obvious:  the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary confer enormous benefits on candidates who either meet or exceed expectations, giving them forward momentum while the remaining candidates see the money dry up, the television cameras disappear, and the crowds thin as the media instructs voters to look elsewhere. While Iowa and New Hampshire may not necessarily pick a party’s eventual nominee (or agree with each other, for that matter), they always shrink the field.

Another consequence of Iowa/New Hampshire momentum is that it often gives a candidate the ability to steamroll to the nomination.  Indeed, in the majority of nomination contests over the past half century, a party’s eventual nominee has often gotten a firm grip on the nomination early in the process, leaving voters in the remaining states the primarily ceremonial task of ratifying the decision the early states already have taken.

The ability of Iowa and New Hampshire to winnow presidential fields and coronate frontrunners is often thought to be desirable, both allowing surviving candidates more oxygen and eliminating allegedly nonviable candidates who heretofore have cluttered the stage. Party establishments, moreover, find such winnowing/coronating power beneficial, as a swift nomination battle between prospective candidates allows for an earlier pivot to the general election campaign.

An alternative perspective, however, is that investment of such power in two states is not only inequitable, but highly undemocratic. Why should a handful of Iowans and New Hampshirites have the right to speak on behalf of an entire nation? Can we be certain they have eliminated candidates who would not have performed better in states with different demographic compositions or political traditions? And why, just because Iowa and New Hampshire find a particular candidate a compelling nominee, should the rest of America simply trust their judgment—especially when eliminated candidates express dissenting viewpoints that would not otherwise have been aired within a constrained two-party system.

Democrats in 2004 (Left to Right):  Dean, Clark, and Gephardt
Democrats in 2004: Dean, Clark, and Gephardt


To get proverbial for a moment, if one person’s trash could be another’s treasure, could not one state’s also-ran be another state’s breakout star, and vice versa? When a lackluster performance in Iowa or New Hampshire forces a candidate out of a nomination battle prematurely, voters in other states never have the opportunity to evaluate formally this individual—which under a truly democratic system, they should possess. Similarly, when a candidate leaves Iowa and New Hampshire as the prohibitive nominee—the media already salivating over a projected general election matchup—other states are denied any ability to influence the race.

Looking at primary campaigns from the preceding decade, we see races characterized not by protraction, but by brevity—in which Iowa and New Hampshire have played decisive rolls.

In 2004, Howard Dean’s bid for the Democratic nomination fell victim to the one-two Iowa/New Hampshire punch of a resurgent John Kerry—though Dean lingered on for another couple contests. Richard Gephardt ended his campaign following a fourth place finish in Iowa, while Joseph Lieberman exited the race just a week after New Hampshire. Though both John Edwards and Wesley Clark continued deeper into the schedule, neither had a realistic chance of catching Kerry, the post Iowa/New Hampshire momentum of whom was too great to overcome.


Republicans in 2008:  Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani
Republicans in 2008: Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani

In 2008, losses in Iowa and New Hampshire irreparably wounded Mitt Romney’s campaign, the latter of which returned John McCain to the top of the proverbial pack and gave him the momentum to earn low-plurality wins subsequently in South Carolina and Florida. A lackluster result in Iowa sent Fred Thompson’s campaign reeling, while Rudy Giuliani, abandoning his initial New Hampshire-centric strategy in the face of mediocre polling, retreated to Florida, where he was later defeated. In many respects, Giuliani was 2008’s poster child for how the lack of Iowa/New Hampshire momentum can sink a once promising national candidacy.


True, the 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama evolved into a frenetic delegate-driven battle of attrition that went down to the final states on the schedule, but this was a deviation from the norm; and even so, Iowa and New Hampshire maintained their winnowing power, with Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd withdrawing following poor Iowa showings and Bill Richardson pulling out after New Hampshire. John Edwards, meanwhile, was unable to attract much attention as a result of Obama’s post-Iowa hype and Clinton’s post-New Hampshire publicity; they had momentum, and he didn’t.

Democrats in 2004:  Dean, Clark, and Gephardt
Democrats in 2008: Biden , Dodd, and Richardson

The 2012 battle for the Republican nomination appears to be following the same trend:  Iowa and New Hampshire tell the nation who’s hot and who’s not, leading to an abbreviated primary schedule in which the majority of states are irrelevant. With Mitt Romney having bested Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in Iowa and leading in New Hampshire, many observers believe Romney—despite tepid support nationally among Republican voters—could be the de facto nominee by February.


NBC news analysts after their Sunday debate argued that wins for Romney in New Hampshire and South Carolina would end the contest, despite a dissatisfied Republican electorate as reflected in the remarkable swings we have seen in polls and illustrated by the seemingly endless parade of anti-Romneys over the last few months. “So it has come to this,” POLITICO’s Roger Simon opined in an article titled Hello, Goodbye, “Seven days since [voting for the GOP nomination] began, [and] it is essentially over.”


Republicans in 2012:  Bachmann, Huntsman, and Pawlenty
Republicans in 2012: Bachmann, Huntsman, and Pawlenty

Already, Michele Bachmann has dropped out after her poor finish in the January 3 caucus, while Rick Perry’s campaign—though it marches on, for now—is apparently on life support. Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman, who has staked everything on New Hampshire, will likely withdraw absent a top two result. Tim Pawlenty, once considered a leading alternative to Romney, exited the stage in August after a third-place result in the Iowa straw poll.


Whatever one may think of these aforementioned candidacies, in a democratic system, so few individuals should not have the authority to foreclose choices before an entire nation. After all, candidates handed a certificate of defeat by the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire were not running for each state’s respective governorship; they were striving to become president of the United States. When dealing with national offices, should not all Americans have the right to weigh in?

A far better way to structure nominations would be the American Plan, a significant reform to our nation’s primary process that preserves the tradition of having a staggered primary calendar—thereby maintaining the benefits of not having every state contest on a super “primary day,” which unfairly advantages candidates with money and name recognition—but employs a graduated system, with clear breaks that increase the likelihood that other voters will cast meaningful votes. Iowa and New Hampshire have had decades in the spotlight; it is time for other states to have their moment too.