Iowa and New Hampshire: The First Contests

I have just completed a three-day visit to New Hampshire and Iowa, the states that feature the first Democratic presidential contests of the 2004 election. They are both relatively small states. Iowa, with a population just under three million, ranks 30th out of the 50 U.S. states. New Hampshire, on the other hand, with a population of 1.2 million, is 41st.

Despite their relatively small populations these two states loom larger in presidential elections because the decision made by their voters will determine the direction of the entire contest.

Here’s why.

On January 19 Iowa’s voters will meet in hundreds of small caucuses throughout the state. At these small meetings, in schoolrooms, firehouses and other public buildings, Iowans will cast their votes in an open public session for their preferred presidential candidates. In all, only about 2 percent of Iowans usually participate-but the candidate who wins and even those who do better than expected will get substantial national press coverage that can help launch their candidacies onto the national scene.

Then, on January 27, New Hampshire voters go to the polls where they will vote for their candidate in a more traditional secret ballot. As with Iowa, the winner of the New Hampshire primary and the candidates who do better than expected will get a big national press bounce.

Because of the exposure they will get and the momentum that this will give to their campaigns it is assumed that the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire will have a significant advantage in the remaining states.

The week after the New Hampshire Primary, nine states will hold their elections (Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Oklahoma on February 3 and Michigan and Washington on February 7). Because those states are so diverse and spread out across the country and because their elections all happen in the same week the entire dynamic of the campaign shifts after New Hampshire.

The difference is dramatic.

In Iowa and New Hampshire the candidates engage in what is called "retail politics", i.e., they campaign personally, meeting with small groups, holding gatherings at supporters’ homes and talking to voters one at a time. Since it will only take a few tens of thousands of votes to win in Iowa or New Hampshire the candidates have been spending a great deal of time during the past year in these two states: building an organization, seeking the endorsement of local elected officials and community leaders and meeting as many voters as possible.

Running for President in these two states is not unlike running for mayor in a small town. As a result, Iowa and New Hampshire voters will meet, during the lead up to the election, most of the candidates and personally speak to them about their concerns. They’ll look them in the eye, measure the candidates’ responses to their questions before they decide on their vote.

That, of course, cannot happen after New Hampshire. Then the campaign shifts to "wholesale politics"-where the election will consist of paid advertising, large campaign events and building statewide political organizations to get out the vote on Election Day. Because this type of campaigning is so costly and because it happens so quickly with nine states holding their elections in the next week and, voters in 20 more states casting their ballots in the following three weeks, the campaigns need the momentum garnered from a good showing in Iowa and New Hampshire to attract money to their efforts and to get the free national press coverage that will follow from early success.

That is why Iowa and New Hampshire are so important. They act as filters-screening out the candidates who will be able to compete nationally. And they act as catapults, launching strong campaigns onto the national stage.

Now it is not inevitable that the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire will go on to win it all-but there is no doubt that they will have the edge. And that is why the contest is so intense.

Here are some of the calculations the campaigns are making at this point.

With Congressman Dick Gephardt slightly ahead of former Governor Howard Dean in Iowa and with Dean holding a sizable lead over Senator John Kerry in New Hampshire, it looks like Gephardt and Dean may get the early advantage. If Dean actually wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Gephardt’s candidacy could be in real trouble. Kerry must significantly improve his performance in New Hampshire and do much better in Iowa if he is to remain a viable candidate.

Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards and General Wesley Clark never figured they would do well in liberal Iowa (Lieberman and Clark have, therefore, decided not to compete there), nor do they expect to win in New Hampshire-but they are working to secure a strong third place finish so as to give their more centrist candidacies a lift as the campaign moves to states in the South and Southwest where they hope that those states’ more conservative voters will give them victories.

In any case, with all of the calculations the different campaigns will present as to how they will fare in the later states, the real action of the 2004 elections is now in Iowa and New Hampshire. The candidates are there and the national press is there as well.

That is what drew me to my three-day visit. In just a short time, I addressed six audiences of more than 1,000 voters with a simple message. "You are our interlocutors. You will decide for the rest of us. You will meet the candidates and ask them the questions that concern us all." And so I pressed those with whom I met to focus the attention of the candidates on critical issues, which I believe, must be addressed in this campaign-peace in the Middle East and civil liberties here in the United States.

Because there is a vibrant, established Arab American community in Iowa they play a very special role in our work. But in both states there are strong networks of civil libertarians, peace activists and concerned citizens who care about the erosion of constitutional rights and the lack of balance in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. On just this one visit I found hundreds willing to work to raise these issues so as to insure that as Iowa and New Hampshire decide who will win they will also help to shape the national debate.

Our American political process has its critics, to be sure, but it is a remarkably open and ingenious process. It is a wonder to watch Iowa and New Hampshire town hall meetings at work. Ordinary citizens questioning candidates who seek to hold the highest office in the land. It can’t be done in every state, but at least it’s done in these two states. It’s real democracy at work.