The Uncertain Fate of Early Voting States

Iowa and New Hampshire’s political clout could ride on the results of the 2016 race.

A voter walks to the polls for the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames. (Jim Young / Reuters)

Iowa and New Hampshire are quick to make the case that they deserve the special status that comes with being the first states to hold nominating contests in the presidential primary. Sure, they wield outsized influence in elections. But defenders claim the up-close-and-personal primary process that typically unfolds allows voters to vet candidates in a way that ultimately benefits the entire nation.

Iowa and New Hampshire may not maintain that political power forever. In an election year that has so far defied expectation, there are murmurs, even veiled threats, that the states risk losing their vaunted status if candidates who challenge the priorities of the political establishment pull off upsets.

One challenge to the status quo comes from Donald Trump. Conventional wisdom holds that presidential campaigns must lavish attention on Iowa and New Hampshire voters if they want to win. That means knocking on doors, holding town halls, and sitting down to talk with residents at restaurants and coffee shops. So far, however, Trump has seemed to favor massive political rallies over spending time with voters in smaller settings. If he wins, it could send a message that candidates don’t need to spend as much time on the ground in early voting states.

“New Hampshire folks have to be concerned about that,” Republican rival Chris Christie told Bloomberg in a recent interview. “If they reward a candidate who flies in here, does a rally, and signs some hats and leaves, you can do that in any state. It doesn’t have to be here,” Christie added.

Candidates have long felt pressure to cater to Iowa and New Hampshire as a result of their first-in-the-nation status. Early wins can create much-needed momentum. A poor performance, by contrast, can put a campaign on life-support or prompt an exit from the race. But a steady stream of national cable-news coverage coupled with social-media exposure may be helping candidates reach a national audience without needing to rely as heavily on a customized pitch to early-state voters. That, in turn, may ease the pressure that campaigns feel to make personal appeals to Iowa and New Hampshire residents.

In Iowa, Ted Cruz also appears unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. The Texas senator has been steadfast in calling for an end to the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that helps prop up the Iowa corn industry and is popular with Iowa voters. Supporting the policy has long been considered something of a political necessity for success in the state. Cruz’s opposition certainly doesn’t sit well with Iowa Republican party leaders. Republican Governor Terry Branstad has said he hopes that Cruz is defeated and has criticized the Texas senator’s opposition to the mandate. (To be clear, Cruz supports a five-year phase-out of the policy.) But Cruz has still managed to perform well in Iowa polls, maintaining a strong lead over nearly every other Republican candidate apart from Trump. If he wins the Iowa caucus next week, future candidates might also abandon ethanol.

Political observers acknowledge that the dynamics of campaigning have changed. “The whole national conversation kind of trumps local politics in this election cycle, that’s something we definitely haven’t seen before,” said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican and a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “That changes Cruz’s approach. Even Donald Trump, he’s not just coming in here and kowtowing to whatever he thinks Iowans want to hear.”

There have already been indications from the Republican Party that the early voting status of Iowa and New Hampshire could be at risk. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus fueled speculation in September by suggesting that early voting states shouldn’t be considered “sacred cows.”

Meanwhile, Democrats must confront the possibility that Bernie Sanders could win Iowa and New Hampshire, an outcome that poses a different kind of threat to the political influence of those states.

Critics maintain that Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t demographically representative of the rest of the country. The demographic makeup of the states could be an advantage for Sanders who tends to poll better with white Americans than with minority voters. But if Iowa and New Hampshire give Sanders a boost only for him to falter in states with more diverse electorates, that could prompt the Democratic establishment to reconsider the voting order. If that scenario were to unfold, it could also signal to future Democratic contenders that catering to political priorities in Iowa and New Hampshire might put them out of step with the rest of the country.

“If either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders wins both states big, but then fails to win the nomination, then the question, I think, will pop into people’s minds, have the electorates in those states become so different from the electorates in other states?” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. “Other states could then challenge their right to be first, but more importantly candidates might feel comfortable skipping those early states,” Kamarck added.

Trump remains, in many ways, an outlier. His celebrity status has made it less important for him to spend time introducing himself to voters. Most presidential candidates aren’t former reality-TV stars. So even if Trump wins, future presidential hopefuls may not view it as a lesson that they can merely mimic Trump’s tactics to achieve his success.

Speculation over the potential demise of Iowa and New Hampshire’s early voting status isn’t new either. It’s practically a tradition to predict that the states may lose their clout each time a presidential election rolls around. Although these questions often arise just before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the furor tends to die down quickly. “Every four years people are surprised to learn that this is such a screwy system, but then they forget about it,” Kamarck said. “Once the race is over, people tend to stop asking questions.”