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Government & Politics

Do Iowa and New Hampshire Know Best?

By Mike Unger

Photo: SPA professor Candice Nelson, Glen Bolger, middle, and Corey Lewandowski

SPA professor Candice Nelson, Glen Bolger, and Corey Lewandowski were among the panelists who discussed the position of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary at a CCPS event. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

When it comes to casting votes in presidential primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire are not unlike school children jockeying for position in line at the water fountain after recess. They really love going first.

But is a system in which the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary play such an outsize role in determining presidential nominees what’s best for the country?

As with so much in politics, the answer depends on who you ask. Opinions ran the gamut during AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies' December 1 forum on the topic, moderated by Professor Candice Nelson.

“The beauty of New Hampshire and Iowa is candidates have to spend the time, shake the hands, look the voters in the eye, and tell them who they are,” said Corey Lewandowski, SPA/MA ’97, state director of Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire. “I think the system allows the voters to go to the ballot box understanding principles and not sound bites.”

That also could be achieved in other states, argued David Mark, senior editor of POLITICO.

“I tend to favor something like a regional primary,” he said. “I think it would be the most effective way of having the candidates focus on one area of the country but getting a broader breadth of voters.”

Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit focused on fundamental structural reform of American elections, agreed with Mark, but doesn’t believe the government should mandate a change.

“I think we should rotate where the retail politics happen,” he said. “When we’re talking about primaries and caucuses, we’re talking about the process in which a private association is picking a leader. I don’t think the government should tell a private association how to pick its leaders. I don’t want the government to tell my group how we should vote.”

Though they share the spotlight at the beginning of the presidential election season, the process by which Iowa and New Hampshire select delegates is quite different. The Iowa caucuses require people to attend a meeting and openly state whom they support. New Hampshire’s primaries are a more traditional election, with polls open in designated precincts where people vote privately.

The two states rarely choose the same candidate. In 24 open contests (in which an incumbent wasn’t trying to stave off a challenger) since 1976, the same candidate has won both states just three times. Jimmy Carter in ’76, Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in ’04 pulled off the feat.

“They do have a history of putting some [clarity] into the system,” said Mark, who pointed to Harry Truman’s 1952 New Hampshire loss and Carter’s ’76 Iowa win. “They’ve stayed [first] because like a lot of traditions, it’s just the way it is.”

But should it be? Why not start the primaries in a smaller state like Delaware (it already has the “First State” motto) or a more diverse one?

“In Tennessee you have a lot of ethnic minorities, you have urban and rural, a growing population of northeasterners who have moved there,” Mark said.

One thing on which all the panelists seemed to agree is that beginning the process in a large state would be ill-advised.

“If California goes first, most people aren’t even going to get a sniff of a candidate,” said Glen Bolger, SPA/BS ’85, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies.

Lewandowski admitted that he’s anything but unbiased — he loves his home state of New Hampshire and the role it plays in presidential politics. It must hold its primary seven days before any “similar election,” according to state law.

“I don’t think our founders thought we’re going to have the richest candidate buy as much time in the biggest media market possible,” he said. “If we want the first primary to be in a state like Texas what we are encouraging is the wealthiest candidate to spend as much money as possible to spread the message. If that was the case Barack Obama would not be president.”

Like it or not, Iowa and New Hampshire are where the race for the presidency begins.

“Candidates ignore New Hampshire at their own peril,” Lewandowski said. “You all remember President Giuliani? He’s done a great job in the White House.”