Time to Tell Iowa and New Hampshire: You’re Fired
Thanks Iowa. The technical mess which is your caucus is a reminder that the primary system is a political mess too. That makes this a good time to rethink why Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first in the nomination process anyway. Especially given how bad they are in selecting wining candidates for president.
The conclusion should be simple: Iowa and New Hampshire, you’re fired!
I’m sure these states take their privileged position on the election calendar seriously. Nevertheless, their peculiar kick-off to the presidential campaign every four years is hard to justify and should remind the rest of us how badly the political process as a whole needs reform. At the presidential level this reform should also comprehensively address election security, campaign finance, the electoral college and protection of voting rights.
But let’s return to the nominating process.
Set aside for a moment how annoying it is to see Iowa and New Hampshire get all this attention every four years and how weird the Iowa caucus procedures are. The “first-of” status these states have assumed could be justified if they were any good at selecting candidates that the majority of the American people wanted. But it turns out Iowa and New Hampshire are not very good at picking who would be the most likely winner in November. Instead they seem best at front-loading the election cycle with their parochial interests, such as corn ethanol in Iowa.
Consider their record in getting the major political parties to nominate a winning general election candidate. There have been 10 presidential elections going back to 1980, the first year in which both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary operated in a way similar to how they do now for both parties. To measure the political effectiveness of these states, we should ask how many times these contests produced a winner who both secured the party’s nomination and then won the general election.
It’s less than one in five times when there’s not an incumbent president — not a pretty picture.
To be fair, if Iowa and New Hampshire were perfect at picking their party’s nominees, they would get the general election victor correct only 50% of the time, since by definition, one party’s candidate in November must win and the other lose.
Still, even by this standard these states have a poor track record.
- In the 40 contests over this period (2 parties x 2 states x 10 elections) the winner in either Iowa or New Hampshire won the presidency only 13 times. This statistic is even more sobering since it includes all of the contests with an incumbent president. During this period, no incumbent has failed to secure his party’s nomination, winning both Iowa and New Hampshire along the way. And the incumbent wins reelection more often than not.
- The picture is even worse for open contests, those without a previously elected incumbent. In the 28 races that fit that definition, there are only 5 correct picks between the two states or a 18% success rate. For Iowa it is: George W. Bush (2000) and Barack Obama (2008); and for New Hampshire it is: Ronald Reagan (1980), George H.W. Bush (1988), and Donald Trump (2016). At a time when the party out of power needs to put forward it’s best candidate, Iowa and New Hampshire may go toward weaker ones.
- Finally, it’s worth considering the downside of rubber-stamping incumbent presidents by these states. The days are long gone when New Hampshire in 1968 helped an insurgent candidate (Eugene McCarthy) to force a sitting president out of the race (Lyndon Johnson). Now in Iowa the party of the incumbent doesn’t even bother with caucuses anymore. But in a couple of cases the party may have been better served by removing a weak incumbent, namely, Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1988.
So why are these two states so bad at their self-proclaimed roles, and why should we care?
The answer is the same to both questions. It’s because the states are not representative of the country as a whole, being among other things both older and much whiter than the rest of the nation. And while they’re not very good at picking eventual winners, they do weed out candidates who don’t come in first. This falls especially hard on insurgent candidates without much money or those whose don’t appeal to the more extreme wings of the party. Such early victories by their nature can create a false sense of momentum and a premature stampede to the nomination.
There are plenty of alternatives to this first-in-the nation role for Iowa and New Hampshire. The National Association of Secretaries of State has proposed regional primaries over a four-month period rotating the order from one cycle to the next. Frankly, a lottery setting primary order each cycle would make more sense than the current one.
My own suggestion is for the two parties to rank the states after each presidential election in terms of how close they were in popular votes and start the next election cycle with the closest ones going first. I would much rather know what Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are thinking right now than Iowa and New Hampshire, so why not hear from them first?
The 2016 election offers intriguing what-if scenarios. If we had operated under such an alternative system, at least half a dozen states would have held primaries before Iowa and New Hampshire, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Imagine if Marco Rubio or John Kasich had won big early victories in their home states before Iowa (where Rubio was a strong third) and New Hampshire (where Kasich was second). The race could have taken a very different path. And a Bernie Sanders upset in Pennsylvania would at the very least have been a valuable early warning to the Hillary Clinton campaign, if not a nomination game-changer.
The point should be to get a true campaign reform conversation going. The current system is an affliction for both parties. To change the current archaic nomination calendar, the two parties would have to work together for the common good (a novel idea!). These calls for reform should not be motivated by any one political cycle, or a desire to give one party an advantage.
Why should environmentalists care about election reform? Democratization makes for good government and increases the likelihood that policies get adopted that are broadly supported by the American people, such as environmental protection. In the case of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, some of the most underrepresented voices — youth, Latinos and African-Americans — are among the most supportive of addressing environmental issues.
So, let’s fire Iowa and New Hampshire so we can have more reality and less of a show in the future. And let’s also get campaign election reform and election security firmly on the top of the national agenda where they belong.