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By Jay Cost

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Is the Primary Calendar Diminishing IA and NH?

Many analysts have argued that - thanks to the compressed primary schedule - the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire has been diminished this cycle. Has it? If so, has it been diminished because of the schedule?

I am not sure whether Iowa or New Hampshire will be diminished this cycle. My argument here is that, whatever diminution actually exists, only a little bit of it has been caused by the new calendar.

A key concept in this consideration is "importance." We cannot answer our question until we know exactly how important Iowa and New Hampshire have been in the past. So, let's start thinking about this by considering the previous (non-incumbent) winners, going back to the first year that the primaries and caucuses were fully dominant, 1976:


2004. Iowa: John Kerry / New Hampshire: John Kerry

2000. Iowa: Al Gore / New Hampshire: Al Gore

1992. Iowa: Tom Harkin / New Hampshire: Paul Tsongas

1988. Iowa: Dick Gephardt / New Hampshire: Michael Dukakis

1984. Iowa: Walter Mondale / New Hampshire: Gary Hart

1976. Iowa: Uncommitted / New Hampshire: Jimmy Carter


2000. Iowa: George W. Bush / New Hampshire: John McCain

1996. Iowa: Bob Dole / New Hampshire: Pat Buchanan

1988. Iowa: Bob Dole / New Hampshire: George H.W. Bush

1980. Iowa: George H.W. Bush / New Hampshire: Ronald Reagan

This should make clear that Iowa and New Hampshire have not historically been as critical as many might think. From this list, we might infer three facts about these contests:

1. A win in Iowa is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success. You can lose Iowa and still win the nomination (Clinton, Dukakis, Carter, Bush, Reagan). You can win Iowa and still lose the nomination (Harkin, Gephardt, Dole, Bush).

2. A win in New Hampshire is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success. You can lose New Hampshire and still win the nomination (Clinton, Mondale, Bush, Dole). You can win New Hampshire and still lose the nomination (Tsongas, Hart, McCain, Buchanan).

3. A win in Iowa and New Hampshire is not a necessary condition for success. You can lose both states and still win the nomination (Clinton). However, a win in Iowa and New Hampshire is a sufficient condition for success. If you win both states, you win the nomination (Gore, Kerry). [Though note that in 1972 Edmund Muskie won both states, but still lost the nomination to George McGovern. 1972 was the first election subsequent to the Democrats' enactment of the McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms, and so it did feature "open" selection systems and therefore a large number of causes and primaries. So, the fact that this condition holds depends upon the cut-off date.]

Right off the bat - note the limited effect of these early contests. They are only decisive when they act in tandem. If they both favor the same candidate - that candidate is advantaged. Otherwise, their effect is far from decisive. And, depending upon whether we count 1972 as the first year or whether we count 1976 - even this effect might not hold.

So, it is only in the third sense that the prestige of Iowa and New Hampshire might be diminished by this compressed primary. What pundits seem to be thinking is that Mitt Romney might win both Iowa and New Hampshire, and still lose the nomination to a candidate who loses both states. Thus, Iowa and New Hampshire will not matter as much. However, I think this is a hasty presumption. A win in both could indeed "slingshot" him to the nomination, as it did John Kerry. That is clearly his strategy. He is banking upon that third inference being true.

He could be right in this regard, but he could also be wrong. It is interesting to note that the third inference - Iowa and New Hampshire together being sufficient - is predicated upon only two observations. Only twice has a challenger ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire. So, it might not be true that wins in both states are sufficient for the nomination.

A way of answering our larger question (what effect will this calendar have on Iowa and New Hampshire?) is thus starting to emerge. What we first need to ask is whether there is a reasonable way that somebody could lose Iowa and New Hampshire to a single opponent, yet still win the nomination - regardless of whether the primary calendar is compressed or inflated. Second, we need to ask whether such candidates are present in this cycle. If there is a plausible way to win the nomination that includes ceding both states to a single opponent - and if the sorts of candidates who could do that exist in this cycle - it becomes more difficult to argue that the primary schedule has diminished the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire.

So, what would it take to win the nomination despite two losses to a single candidate? I think there are two preconditions for such a trajectory. First, you must have money. If there is no money left in your bank account, you cannot put fuel in the airplane - and your candidacy is effectively finished. Second, you must have a good reason to continue: prestige, ideological differences, a clear electability advantage (despite your recent losses), or something. If there is nothing of significance to separate you from the winner of Iowa and New Hampshire - you have no reason to continue.

Thus, I think the third inference is not necessarily true, even if it might be usually true. Regardless of what you do to the primary schedule, you could see somebody lose both Iowa and New Hampshire to a single candidate, but still win the nomination.

Furthermore, I think such candidates are in plentiful supply this cycle. This year, money abounds. So, many candidates will have the cash to continue after Iowa and New Hampshire. What is more - there are good reasons for candidates to continue campaigning even after they lose in the early states. Within both parties, there are ideological differences; there are also prestigious candidates who can legitimately say, "I am not going anywhere until the nation as a whole says no to me." These candidates - I am thinking of both Clinton and Giuliani, maybe also McCain, Obama, and Thompson - could survive early losses and still win the nomination.

In a certain sense, then, this year's crop of candidates is "larger" than these primaries. Unlike previous cycles, many in this crop seem to possess the capacity to survive losses in both to a single opponent. I think that, given these candidates, this is a year where we could expect an equally strong challenge to the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire regardless of the compressed schedule.

If, for instance, Romney were to win Iowa and New Hampshire against these high-profile candidates, and the schedule was not compressed, it would still be about as reasonable to expect a GOP candidate other than Romney to win as it would given a compressed schedule. Of course, the fact that more primaries are pushed forward might alleviate some of the pressure on a high profile candidate who loses Iowa and New Hampshire to a single candidate (and therefore diminish the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire). It might keep public opinion from "congealing" against his or her favor. But, what we are talking about is four weeks. Super Tuesday has been expanded and moved forward by four weeks. That's it. Celebrity candidates like Giuliani or Clinton are - I think - notable (and well-heeled) enough to survive an extra four weeks should they lose these two states. So, even if Super Tuesday were in March rather than February, they would probably do about as well. If Romney wins Iowa and then wins New Hampshire - Giuliani would still have about as good a shot if Super Tuesday were March 5th as he would if it were February 4th. Ditto for Clinton against a Democratic surprise victor. That's how prestigious these candidates are.

In other words, when we "control" for the candidates in the race, we see that most of the ostensible effect that the calendar has is actually ephemeral. In other words, imagine this set of candidates in a more inflated cycle. We would probably still see the same diminution of Iowa and New Hampshire because these candidates have the capacity to play beyond it.

Meanwhile, when we "control" for the calendar, and alter the candidates in it - we would see whatever diminution of Iowa and New Hampshire we have seen disappear. Imagine a compressed primary cycle like this, but without such celebrity candidates. Imagine a set of candidates akin to the Democrats in 1976 or even in 2000, and ask yourself: are Iowa and New Hampshire diminished in a year like that? I'd answer no - that, in fact, they would become more important when none of the candidates are larger-than-life people like Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Barack Obama, and Fred Thompson. Those "second-tier" candidates would become highly dependent upon wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And so at first blush, it seems like it is the calendar affecting the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire - but it just so happens that the calendar was changed in a year with so many high-profile candidates. The seeming causal effect of the calendar is, I think, largely spurious. The candidates are causing most of whatever diminution there actually is. They are different this year. Never have we seen a field so packed with bona fide celebrities. I count six. Six! This is unprecedented in the whole history of American politics. Never have there been six candidates who are essentially household names. They are the kinds of Goliaths who could lose both Iowa and New Hampshire and still win the nomination in any year.

So - two points emerge from these considerations. (a) Iowa and New Hampshire have only ever been important in a limited sense. It has only ever been that a win in both implies the nomination. (b) Their importance this year may or may not be diminished, but little of this is probably due to the compressed calendar. There are candidates with enough money and enough prestige that - should they lose Iowa and New Hampshire to a single opponent - we should not expect their chances to be affected significantly by the primary schedule.

-Jay Cost