Posted on January 10, 2000 in Washington Watch

In a few weeks, two of the United States’ most fascinating political events will occur: the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. For several decades now, these two contests have opened the U.S. presidential elections. They constitute the first tests Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls must pass in their efforts to win the right to represent their respective parties in the November election.

In many ways what is taking place in both states is similar to past presidential elections. But there are some significant differences as well.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire feature what has come to be called “retail politics.” What, in fact, this means is that the political contests in both states are real, open democratic experiences. To win in these two states candidates must personally meet voters, conduct town meetings, and engage in debates with their rivals.

Already each of the candidates has spent months engaged in campaigning in both states. In fact, when national Republican front runner George W. Bush was seen to be losing ground in New Hampshire, precisely because he was not engaged in personal contact with the state’s voters, his campaign dramatically revamped his schedule to put him on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire for the entire month of January.

Although Iowa and New Hampshire only elect a relatively small number of delegates to the parties’ national conventions–their importance is greater than their numbers.

Iowa and New Hampshire are proving grounds for campaigns and they are, in a word, all about “momentum.” If a campaign is leading nationally and does poorly in either or both states–that campaign loses national momentum and credibility. On the other hand, should a lesser candidate do much better than expected or even win in Iowa and New Hampshire, that victory could give that campaign much needed momentum. This new momentum and credibility can concretely be translated into increased fundraising, greater national exposure, and more recognition–all of which can enhance a candidate’s chances in the next round of primaries.

This year’s primary calendar is greatly compressed and quite different than campaigns of the past. In 1988, for example, after Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaign moved slowly across the country. With the exception of one week where a number of Southern states all held their primaries together, most weeks featured only one or two state contests. It was not until June, when California and New Jersey–two states with large delegate counts–that the contest was fully decided. The result was that “retail politics” was the order of the day in most states.

Not so this year. After Iowa (January 24) and New Hampshire (February 1) there are six other contests in February and then in the first two weeks of March another 25 states–representing more than 60 percent of the total number of delegates to be elected–all hold their primaries.

To win in those later states, a candidate will not be able to use “retail politics.” He will not be able to meet voters, attend town meetings and become known through personal contact. To win in these states, and, therefore, to win the nomination, it will require money and lots of it. Money to buy advertising time on television, money to build an organization and money to move the candidates rapidly from state to state to generate news coverage and public exposure.

This situation presents different problems for both parties. On the Republican side, there are two candidates who are guaranteed to have the money needed to compete. Bush has already raised $76 million–more than any campaign in history. Billionaire Steve Forbes has indicated that he will spend whatever is required, from his personal fortune to stay in the contest.

The other four Republicans (McCain, Hatch, Bauer and Keyes) currently lack the resources to compete in the election after the early states. They, therefore, must do very well in Iowa and New Hampshire and the other early February states to build the momentum needed to raise their national profile and the funds needed to carry them through to the end of the campaign. If Forbes does well in Iowa and diminishes Bush’s star and if McCain does better than expected in Iowa (since he is not even formally competing in that state) and then wins New Hampshire and goes on to win at least three of the other six February contests–this could present opportunities for McCain and problems for Bush. In this scenario, McCain may well be able to surge ahead, raising money and generating the momentum necessary to compete with a damaged Bush campaign.

If, on the other hand, Bush easily wins in Iowa and then wins most of the February contests–for all intents and purposes the contest will be over and Bush will be the Republican nominee.

On the Democratic side, with both Gore and Bradley running neck and neck in New Hampshire, Gore needs to win an early decisive victory against Bradley or face the prospect of a hotly contested race to the bitter end. If Gore can deny Bradley momentum in the early states, he can dry up Bradley’s fundraising ability and establish himself as the inevitable Democratic nominee. To the extent that Bradley can win early victories or even come close in the early states, it only insures that Gore will face a real problem until the end of the campaign.

All this being said, it should be clear how important these Iowa and New Hampshire contests are in the overall race to the White House.

It is even more interesting to see how truly open the Iowa process is. On January 24, 2.3 million Iowans, who are of voting age will be invited to attend over 2,100 caucuses that will be convened throughout the state. At those caucuses there is total democracy. Those in attendance first elect from amongst their midst a chairman to run the meeting. They, then, by a show of hands, vote for the candidate of their choice. Then they choose four delegates to represent their choices at another caucus that will be held on a regional level (this process continues over the next four months until it concludes at a state convention where delegates are elected to represent the state at the national convention). Delegates are assigned to the candidates based on the percentage of votes they receive in the general meeting. Therefore if Gore and Bradley each get 50 percent of the total vote in the caucus, then each get two delegates to the next round.

(It is also interesting to note that after choosing delegates, the caucus also votes on issues to bring to the state convention–in the past Iowans have passed several pro-Arab resolutions, introduced by Arab Americans at these caucuses.

Given the importance of the Iowa Caucus to the overall process of determining who will lead the United States during the next four years and given the total openness of the process and given the tremendous expenditure in time and money made by the candidates–what is troubling is the lack of interest in politics and in the caucuses displayed by Iowans–and Americans in general.

Of the 2.3 million Iowans who are eligible to vote, less than one-tenth will turn out for the caucuses. In fact, a mere 60,000 voters will, in all likelihood, determine which of the candidates will generate the momentum needed to continue in the race.

In New Hampshire the picture is better, but not perfect. There, voters go to traditional voting booths on Election Day–but, in all likelihood less than one-third of eligible voters will turn out to vote.

In some ways this is the important, but untold story of Iowa and New Hampshire. They are home to the most important contests in what is probably the most important election in the most powerful country on earth. And yet with all of that and with the attention and the investment in these contests–they will be decided by a very small number of people who choose to attend their caucuses or go to the polls and vote on Election Day.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus