Q&A: Why do Iowa and New Hampshire get to vote first?

How the two states won - and kept - their privileged position in presidential politics

A precinct chairwoman explains the rules during the 2008 Iowa caucus. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)
A precinct chairwoman explains the rules during the 2008 Iowa caucus. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

It’s that time again.

With Americans gearing up to choose a new president in November, the nominating calendar has turned the nation’s attention back to two relatively small states that play an outsized role in picking the leader of the free world: Iowa and New Hampshire.

Political junkies, of course, have been closely tracking developments in the two states for months, in search of clues about who the eventual winners will be. For everybody else, though, the two states’ return to the headlines could spark some questions. Here’s a refresher.

Remind me why everybody is talking about Iowa and New Hampshire?

Because they’re about to cast the first actual votes in the presidential nominating contests for both parties.

On the evening of Feb. 1, Iowa voters will gather for what are known as “caucuses” – public meetings at roughly 1,800 precincts around the state where they will tabulate who they support for president. Eight days later, on Feb. 9, New Hampshire voters will head to the polls throughout the day to cast ballots in their state’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

The processes are different. But the goal is the same: help choose who the two parties should nominate for president.

So do the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire always become president?

No – sometimes they don’t even become their parties’ nominees. Just ask Rick Santorum (2012 Iowa caucus winner), Mike Huckabee (2008 Iowa caucus winner), or Gary Hart (1988 New Hampshire primary winner).

“New Hampshire and Iowa do not pick presidents,” says James Pindell, an expert on the New Hampshire primary who now writes for The Boston Globe. “New Hampshire and Iowa winnow the field.”

Winnow the field? What does that mean?

Votes are tabulated in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, after the 2008 primary. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Votes are tabulated in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, after the 2008 primary. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Experts generally agree that one of the most important functions served by Iowa and New Hampshire is helping to narrow down the large list of candidates who throw their hats into the ring for president to a smaller group of truly viable potential nominees.

“The function of Iowa, I think, is to elevate some politicians and winnow out others – it’s not necessarily picking winners and losers,” explains David Yepsen, who was long Iowa’s top political reporter and is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

A strong showing in Iowa or New Hampshire – even if it’s not an outright win – can boost a lesser-known hopeful, while a poor showing by a famous name can reveal underlying problems with a candidacy.

“I’ve always said there are three tickets out of Iowa: first class, coach and standby,” Yepsen says.

Some classic examples include the 1968 New Hampshire primary, where then-President Lyndon Johnson’s poor showing helped convince him not to seek re-election; the 1976 Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, which famously vaulted little-known Jimmy Carter to prominence and, eventually, the White House; and the 2008 Iowa caucus, when Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton first showed he could go the distance.

Who chose Iowa and New Hampshire to go first?

Nobody, at least originally – it was an accident of history.

The Iowa caucuses have been around since the 1800s but only began to rise to their current prominence after the 1968 election, when Democrats shook up their nominating process in the aftermath of a chaotic contest. Looking at the calendar – and the availability of hotel rooms in Des Moines – led Democratic Party leaders in Iowa to move the caucuses back so that they wound up as the first presidential vote in the country. Jimmy Carter used the new calendar as a springboard to the presidency in 1976, and the Hawkeye State’s position has stayed locked in ever since.

New Hampshire has had a first-in-the-nation primary since 1916, but it first attracted serious attention in 1952, when a strong showing by Dwight Eisenhower helped convince him to actively seek the White House. In 1976 Jimmy Carter’s campaign also played a key role in cementing the Granite State’s status, as he rode momentum out of his Iowa showing to win in New Hampshire, too.

Jimmy Carter campaigns in Iowa in 1976. (AP photo)
Jimmy Carter campaigns in Iowa in 1976. (AP photo)

“In 1976, Carter created the mythology of the early states, the idea that you can come out of nowhere – ‘Jimmy who?’ – and campaign and have the right message and win,” Pindell says. “He won Iowa and New Hampshire, and then everything since then has been bananas.”

After some arguing in the 1970s and early ’80s over who should go first, party leaders in the two states reached an agreement that would allow Iowa to hold its first-in-the-nation caucus eight days before New Hampshire holds its first-in-the-nation primary. And the deal has stuck.

“Basically, we Americans have outsourced our first look at the field to the 1.4% of the American population that lives in Iowa and New Hampshire,” writes Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution scholar.

How come another state hasn’t managed to replace them?

Oh, they’ve tried. Many times. Indeed, almost every four years there has been an effort by other states to muscle their way into the start of the nominating process (though the current 2016 cycle has been quieter than normal on that front).

It hasn’t worked, for a couple of reasons.

First off, officials in Iowa and New Hampshire have fought tenaciously to maintain their cherished status. Yepsen argues it’s partly an ego thing – Iowans, both elite and average, like getting all that attention from famous politicians – and it’s also a way to keep the state competitive for both parties.

Another reason: you can’t beat something with nothing.

“The thing that protects Iowa is inertia,” Yepsen says. “Most of the country hates the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire go first. But they can’t agree on a different way to do it, and there are also downsides to other ways of doing it.”

There’s also little incentive for the people who could force a change to actually do so. Presidents who, by definition, won office under the current system are unlikely to want to change it before they run for re-election. And candidates hoping to win the presidency don’t want to publicly anger the two states that could have such an impact on their chances.

“Do I think that some day down the line New Hampshire won’t have the first primary? Anything’s possible,” Pindell says. “But it’s survived so many challenges before, and it has become such a tradition, that I think it’s going to be hard.”

What do people outside Iowa and New Hampshire say about them going first?

For about as long as Iowa and New Hampshire have been voting first, critics have complained about their outsize influence, arguing they’re too white, too rural and too small to represent the rest of the country. And the critics have heaped special scorn on the arcane rules that govern Iowa’s caucus process.

“Iowa looks nothing like the rest of the nation, and its wintry, time-consuming caucuses make participation difficult, if not impossible, for much of the citizenry – especially those with limited economic means,” argues Jeff Greenfield, a veteran political analyst. “The Democratic caucuses in particular take two of the core principles of a free system – the secret ballot and one-person-one-vote – and throw them away.”

Some in Iowa and New Hampshire acknowledge the critics have a point, but they also note that any other nominating calendar would have its drawbacks, too. “There’s no perfect system,” Pindell says.

A key argument put forward by supporters of Iowa and New Hampshire – as well as, to a lesser extent, the other early-voting states of South Carolina and Nevada – is that the intimate nature of the contests there allow voters to get to know the candidates up close and personal in a way that would be impossible if all 50 states voted at the same time, or even in a select group of larger ones.

“I think there is value in forcing people who want to be president of the United States to have to go out and talk to Americans one on one,” Yepsen says. “In these four states you get that. They have to do that. It’s part of the gauntlet that they run.”

Adds Brookings’ Kamarck: “Anyone who has watched the earnest voters of New Hampshire grill a United States Senator in a town hall meeting or anyone who has watched the Iowa voters debating the merits of each candidate in a precinct caucus has to come away impressed with the exercise in democracy that takes place in these states – a process impossible to imagine in a big state.”

What else should we know about the two states?

Yepsen: “I think there’s an American Gothic stereotype of Iowa. It is an agricultural state, but not everyone in Iowa is a farmer. In a state of 3.1 million people, less than 90,000 are farmers. Agriculture accounts for about 20% of the gross state product. It is the largest sector of the economy, but it’s not the only thing that goes on here. I’ve always found Americans are sort of captured by our stereotypes – but everybody in New York is not rude, everybody in San Francisco is not gay, and everybody in Iowa isn’t a farmer. If you go to the western side of Des Moines, the financial services people look like financial services people all over America.”

Pindell: “I think the biggest thing that people don’t quite understand about New Hampshire is the role that independent voters play. Independent voters make up 40% of the electorate, and they can pick whatever ballot they want on primary day. So when you have two parties holding primaries, as you do this year, that dynamic is huge. Sanders is leading in New Hampshire right now, but not in any other early state, because of independent voters. Or say they all want to vote for or against Trump. That’s the biggest wild card in the state that people don’t quite grasp – people look at polls, who’s up, who’s down. But independent voters are not even just an X factor: they decide the primary.”

Does the winner in Iowa get a leg up in New Hampshire?

Sometimes, though New Hampshire voters don’t always like to admit it. As former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu once put it: “The people of Iowa pick corn; the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”

John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, finds that candidates who do relatively well in Iowa (even if they don’t win) often do better in New Hampshire, perhaps because a surprisingly strong finish wins them more media attention in the short time between the caucus and the New Hampshire.

But sometimes it can go the opposite way. In 2008, a surging Barack Obama got his comeuppance fresh off his big Iowa victory when Hillary Clinton battled back to defeat him in the New Hampshire primary.

Who votes after Iowa and New Hampshire?

Nevada and South Carolina, the other two early-voting states.

When does my state vote?

Click here for the Federal Election Commission’s full list of dates [pdf].

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com in Providence, Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi