How Iowa and New Hampshire Defend Their Early-State Status

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus recently said he’d be open to changing the order of the presidential primaries. But the longtime first-in-the-nation states have a lot of tools at their disposal to stay where they are.

Students carry homemade political signs in front of a polling location at Broken Ground School in Concord, New Hampshire, as voters begin to cast ballots in the state's 2008 primary. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Every four years, Iowa and New Hampshire schedule their primaries before anyone else, giving them outsized says in determining the next president of the United States. And every four years, other states eye a piece of the action as figures in both parties contemplate switching the order.

This time is no different. Recently, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told National Journal he’d like to consider other options for the presidential primary schedule, threatening to take away from Iowa and New Hampshire their sacred quadrennial place in politics.

The news has some locals worried. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is not one of them. As he points out, “We’ve been in violation of party rules every single cycle since I’ve been secretary of state.” New Hampshire (and Iowa) have ways of keeping their coveted early spots in line.

Should Priebus or anyone else move to alter the schedule, there are tools at Iowa's and New Hampshire’s disposal to ward off challengers to their preeminence.

Make your case.

When asked to name early states’ greatest weapon against losing their spots in the primary lineup, political experts’ first answer is the most obvious: lobbying the media.

New Hampshire has held the first presidential primary since 1920. Iowa’s early caucuses are a tradition dating back to 1972. Besides continuity, activists and historians of both parties consistently argue that the states force candidates to answer tough questions in unscripted moments.

"New Hampshire has earned its place as the First-in-the-Nation presidential primary state because our voters are sophisticated and take their role in the nomination process seriously,” New Hampshire GOP chair Jennifer Horn said in a statement last week. “The entire nation benefits when candidates are forced to answer the concerns of voters face-to-face in living rooms and backyards across New Hampshire.”

Work with the party opposing a change.

If the RNC were to work to change the schedule, it wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the early states because, after all, Republicans aren’t the only game in town. The Democratic National Committee has sent no public signals about changing the primary calendar, and it would be next to impossible for the parties to decouple their processes.

“The first and largest impediment is that the RNC can change all it wants, but a changed system is really never going take hold unless there is similar buy-in from the DNC,” writes Josh Putnam, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who tracks presidential primary scheduling. “When the national parties coordinate these types of changes, even if only in an informal way, they tend to institutionalize both more quickly and in a more lasting way.”

Keep preempting the other states.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have the power to simply move their caucuses or primary earlier, preempting any states’ or parties’ attempts to hold another nominating contest first. In New Hampshire’s case, it’s automatic: Since the 1970s, the state has had a law on the books mandating that its primary take place seven days before “a similar election,” usually taken to mean other presidential primaries. (The loophole, which doesn’t mention caucuses, creates no conflict with Iowa.)

“By Iowa and New Hampshire working together, we’ve been able to fend off the challenges in both the Republican and Democratic parties from other states that want to get ahead of us,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad recently told Iowa State University professor Steffen Schmidt.

Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, has been a particularly adept buffer between his state’s primary and others. “I’ve called him an artist in using the tools of the law that I sponsored,” said Jim Splaine, a former New Hampshire state representative who authored the first-in-the-nation primary legislation.

Sacrifice delegates.

The RNC has had much success creating a compressed 2016 primary calendar, in part by offering states the option of holding winner-take-all primaries by mid-March which would send all of their delegates to one candidate. At the same time, the committee also has sticks to go with the carrots: threatening to cut unruly states’ delegates at the national convention.

But Iowa and New Hampshire’s outsized clout comes not from delegates but from their calendar placement and the momentum candidates derive from performing well there. “New Hampshire is important because the candidates think it's important,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

In 2008, Florida and Michigan moved their primaries earlier in the hope of gaining more clout and lost delegates in the process, Putnam noted. The traditional early states could make the same decision if they needed to in order to protect their status.

When all else fails, lean on the candidates.

Ultimately, the attention presidential candidates pay to early states is what gives them so much clout. So putting pressure on candidates to ignore other states infringing on their early territory is one final way that Iowa and New Hampshire protect themselves.

For example: In 1996, Delaware held its primary the same day as New Hampshire’s. But most Republican candidates running to take on Bill Clinton that year acquiesced to a New Hampshire-driven boycott of the Delaware primary.

“Does blackballing candidates work under those circumstances? Maybe. Maybe not,” Putnam said. “It would depend on what other states are in competition and how many delegates that state has to offer.”