Declining impact of early state primary Politics

Political veterans of both major parties share a similar romantic campaign memory.

Candidates in flannel shirts and jeans are marching through snowy towns in Iowa and New Hampshire, chatting to small groups of voters over coffee and cake at someone's house and flipping pancakes in a church basement. The person-to-person nature of early primary state campaigning provided hope that anything was possible, that an obscure candidate could gain momentum and move toward the nomination. And this process excluded those who did not have the ability to reach voters on a personal level.

That system is being exposed this year, as changes to the primary schedule and an unusual candidate field — where the leading candidates in both parties are essentially incumbents — shake up the process that Democrats and Republicans have used for decades to contest the presidency. Have been tending to compromise on their strongest candidates. ,

President Joe Biden will also not attend the voting in New Hampshire, which is defying Democratic National Committee rules to proceed with its traditional first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 25, despite the fact that the DNC Has brought glory to South Carolina. To go first.

It appears Florida Democrats are ready to skip the actual primary, with the party voting to put only Biden's name on the ballot in October, prompting a lawsuit by Rep. Dean Phillips, the Minnesota Democrat challenging Biden for the nomination. Had threatened.

Republicans technically have an open race for the nomination, but former President Donald Trump's influential presence has made the GOP contest more similar to that for the current president. Trump doesn't hold the small, intimate events in coffee shops and pizza parlors that Iowa and Granite Staters are used to. Instead, he holds big rallies and does not take questions from voters after that.

Other major GOP contenders - former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - are also in the race. DeSantis is focusing more on Iowa, where GOP voters tend to be socially conservative, and Christie is setting his sights on New Hampshire, where New Jerseyans are receiving a warmer welcome.

But his trips have dwarfed Trump's events in the news cycle. And while in the past a candidate's comments or announcements at local stops in Iowa and New Hampshire drove campaign coverage, the 2024 headlines have come more from interviews Trump has given on TV and talk radio shows or at debates. Biden's challengers, including Phillips and self-help guru Marianne Williamson, have struggled to attract media attention even while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It's not that primaries no longer matter — or even that early states aren't important, analysts say. But the days of claiming extreme power in determining presidential nominees in Iowa and New Hampshire are fast coming to an end.

Dante says, "I think it's very difficult to gain momentum from Iowa and New Hampshire," which in the past has given a needed boost to candidates such as 1976 Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, who had little nationally until he won the New Hampshire primary. Were known. Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and a longtime follower of the Granite State's primary campaigns.

"Nowadays, to build a campaign, you have to do it months ahead of time. The old plan of surprising in Iowa and surprising in New Hampshire and then raising money from that to compete later - that's way behind us." , I think,” Scala adds.

New Hampshire and Iowa (where caucuses take place instead of primaries) have served as unique testing grounds for candidates over the years. Media markets are small, so a candidate cannot win on airplay alone. Voters in both states take their roles seriously, as if they were performing jury duty, and many try to see each contender in person at some point during the nomination contest.

But those states' decisive influence is waning — a trend driven by the fact that Democrats knocked New Hampshire and Iowa out of their first spots on the primary calendar this year.

Scala and others say that much of the change is related to the early nationalization of presidential campaigns, meaning that candidates' brands are determined well before the first contests.

“You have to be much better known and become viable much earlier than you were before because of the focus on candidates from Iowa and New Hampshire,” Scala says.

Cartoon on 2024 elections

The old system has evolved over many election cycles, making early contested states inherently less powerful. In 2008, Michigan and Florida became fed up with being late to the primary process and decided to move their nominating contests in violation of DNC rules.

Ironically, that year, contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were so closely matched that the latter gained more power in the states.

In that Democratic primary, "Pennsylvania suddenly became the center of the universe," says David Redlosk, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who is an expert on the primary system, even though its contest took place in April 2008.

And in 2020, Biden trailed in both Iowa and New Hampshire, finishing fifth in the Granite State and receiving no delegates in a state that once had the distinction of securing the primary victory necessary to capture the presidency. Until 1992, no person had become president without winning his or her party's New Hampshire primary.

But with a larger national profile (and strong polling in national surveys), Biden won the South Carolina primary and went on to win the nomination and the general election that year.

"Weak candidates continue to be victorious in early primaries," says Redlosk, but "they may not be able to win over everyone like before."

Analysts say changes in fundraising also have helped reduce the impact of early states. Candidates can raise a lot of money — fast — online, expanding a campaign that probably ended years ago after New Hampshire.

“It was absolutely cash flow,” when candidates had to do well in the primary to receive donations to advance — but sometimes the checks didn't arrive in time to fly to the next primary state, says John Geer. Says, who has written extensively about the presidential campaign process and now serves as senior advisor to the chancellor of Vanderbilt University.

Furthermore, “small donations were not as cost-effective,” as they are now, when donations are made electronically, he says, “by the time you processed a $10 check, you didn't have the money. "

Furthermore, both leading candidates, Biden and Trump, are so well-known among the public that they do not need to do what lesser-known White House candidates have done in early primary states in the past.

"There's really nothing we don't know about them," says Redlawsch.

However, fans of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries are not giving up and say that the contests will always play a special and important role in the selection of the US President.

In New Hampshire, leading Democrats are launching a grassroots campaign to get people to write in for Biden, who did not file in New Hampshire because the state was determined to violate DNC scheduling rules.

That could help Biden, who doesn't need the bad publicity from his loss in New Hampshire, even if it is unlikely to impact his expected renomination. But veteran Democratic strategist Jim Demers, one of the organizers of the write-in campaign, says the move also gives New Hampshire a boost.

“I personally feel strongly that the write-in effort – hopefully it is successful – will give New Hampshire Democrats a story to tell to the DNC when they look at the calendar again for 2028, which is something that Which they're going to do," Demers says.

"We're hearing from a lot of people who are telling us, 'I want to write this guy's name in,'" Demers says, referring to Biden. "I think most Democrats are disappointed that the calendar has changed, but we feel strongly that this election is probably the most important election of our lifetime."

In Iowa, despite Trump's dominance, grassroots signals are still there through the old-timey snow-trudging campaign, says Bob Beatty, whose documentary on the Iowa caucuses will be shown on PBS stations early next year.

Beatty says, "I think the Democrats made a huge mistake by moving Iowa out of its longtime spot as host of the first caucuses (which are separate from the primaries)", but he doubts the party will hold that position for 2028. Can reconsider this.

With Trump in the driver's seat, "everything is bigger this year — the buses are bigger, the super PACs are bigger, there are more TV ads," Beatty says. But underneath that, "they still have to go to Pizza Ranch," and that will likely be even more true in 2028, he says.

And New Hampshire, Demers says, will always be there to keep a close eye on those who want to be president.

"I've never met a former presidential candidate who hasn't said to me, 'I've become a better candidate and I understand a lot more about what other people face because of my direct connection with the people of New Hampshire. have to do.' It makes candidates better,” Demers says.

However, whether this makes them winners is less certain.

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