Are N.H. And Iowa Seeing Their Presidential Primary Clout Slip Away?

Jun 22, 2015

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Iowa and New Hampshire have historically been the opening bells in the presidential nomination process.

But there are growing signs that the states may be losing their clout. Candidates appear to be more focused on running national campaigns, as opposed to connecting with voters in early primary states.

James Pindell covers the New Hampshire Primary for the Boston Globe.

He joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about his reporting.

In your story, you point to something that happened at the Jeb Bush town hall in Derry last week as a symbol of how things have changed. What happened?

Jeb Bush was coming to New Hampshire after his official announcement that he was going to run for president. It was an important, symbolic moment. It was Jeb Bush saying New Hampshire is an extremely important state. He didn’t go to Iowa or South Carolina first, or even go raise buckets of money first. He came to New Hampshire to hold a classic town hall meeting in the tradition of the New Hampshire Primary.

But before he started with the town hall meeting, he went on the same stage at the Opera House in Derry to have an hour-long interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. It seemed like a perfect moment to describe what’s happening in this campaign. Iowa and New Hampshire are still important. They’re still where the candidates are coming. It’s still where the media is covering the campaign. But the focus is not necessarily first on New Hampshire and Iowa’s voters; it’s really been more of a nationalized election.

James Pindell
Credit Coutesy photo

It seems almost at this point like New Hampshire is a background for media where the candidates come and they use those town hall events as a backdrop.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors in play for this 2016 campaign. There are really three. One is the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire basically winnow the field. But with these debate rules, where Fox and CNN will decide who the top 10 are, that’s generally what Iowa and New Hampshire do. Second, even when Iowa and New Hampshire vote, it doesn’t mean they’re going to winnow the field at that moment because we have Super PACs now after Citizens United. Even if you place sixth in New Hampshire, you can still remain in the race. You’re not winnowed out if you have a rich person backing you. And third, we’ve seen the growth of these cattle calls, these major events with a number of candidates. The media come and they cover it and then the candidates go away. They don’t really spend much time in the coffee shops and diners engaging with voters.

In your article, you also bring up the cancelation of the Iowa Straw Poll as another signal of things changing. Candidates simply said we’re not taking part in this.

Right. It’s not as though the Iowa Republican leaders said maybe this isn’t a good idea. They had to cancel the Iowa Straw Poll because candidates were not participating. They didn’t see the early exercise of the straw poll, something that’s been around since 1979, as something worthwhile. They want to spend more time maybe courting voters in New York or maybe courting social conservatives somewhere else. It’s becoming more of a national campaign and less of a grassroots campaign.

Photo from the Iowa Straw Poll
Credit Associated Press

Money also plays a role here, with some saying super PACS could drag out the winnowing process. Given all of these factors, does it seem almost inevitable that Iowa and New Hampshire just aren’t going to be the factors they once were?

I think what we’re finding is this hand-wringing from party leaders in these early primary states. This is Republican and Democratic leaders in these early primary states making this argument that they’re seeing their power go away. Now, to be clear, Iowa and New Hampshire, in terms of going first in the calendar, has never been stronger. Generally, the threat has been from Michigan or Florida and Arizona or Delaware – you pick your year, you pick your particular case example. But that’s not what’s happening. This threat to Iowa and New Hampshire is much more fundamental and it’s about clout. Iowa and New Hampshire will go first, but the question now going forward is what will that mean?