Why Iowa and New Hampshire won't matter this time
Here’s a news flash. The Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary will not matter this year, at least not in the way they’ve mattered every four years for as long as I can remember. You can take that to the bank.
Allow me to explain.
First, have you ever wondered why two small and -- in general terms, politically irrelevant -- states have such a profound impact on primary politics? Have you ever wondered why those two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are like politics’ own Kardashians -- famous because they’re well-known, rather than for any innate value they bring to presidential politics.
Though neither state is representative of America at large, they’re famous as the primary season’s giant killers, taking down the seemingly most powerful primary candidates, generally on what seems like a whim.
Iowa’s caucuses are almost bizarre in their byzantine complexity, and those caucuses only bring out the hard-core among primary-season voters. As a Nevada voter -- we have caucuses too -- I think the process is a bit strange; but Iowa takes that strangeness to an extreme. Instead of checking off a ballot and dropping it in a box, a caucus voter has to commit to several hours of interaction with neighbors and strangers, usually on a bitterly cold winter’s night. Those who show up aren’t really representative of Iowa voters, let alone America’s voters. But they’ve managed to secure a seemingly unshakable “First in the Nation” status, and the media -- and political operatives -- take them seriously.
While New Hampshire has a fairly normal voting approach -- at least compared to Iowa -- over decades the primary voters of New Hampshire have come to revel in their “First Primary in the Nation” status. They have come to expect to see candidates in person, up-close and personal -- and often, more than once. Their votes, then, tend to be arbitrary, and based on who they saw, rather than who they thought might actually be the best Presidential candidate for their party. Worse, New Hampshire has an “open primary,” which allows Democrats to vote in Republican primaries (and vice-versa). This is exactly like a private club -- such as a college fraternity or sorority -- allowing outsiders to vote for their officers.
It just makes no sense.
Even with such eccentric backgrounds, the media and political pundits on both sides give inordinate credence to the outcomes of New Hampshire and Iowa. That is the primary (pardon the pun) reason why some candidates spend most or all of their campaigning time in Iowa or New Hampshire, or both. They know they need to win, or at least to exceed expectations, before they’ll even have the chance to move on to the next primary (South Carolina) and the next caucus (Nevada).
Money. The mother’s milk of politics. Early-season political donors tend to be skittish at the thought of pouring good money after bad. So if a candidate stumbles coming out of the Iowa/New Hampshire starting gate, their funding generally dries up. Once that happens, the writing’s on the wall. This year, you might conceivably see the Republican establishment rally around one early-loss candidate -- probably Jeb Bush -- even despite a poor early showing. If that happens, it will be in hopes of keeping a mainstream Republican “Trump-Killer” in the campaign long enough for Trump to stumble. But I wouldn’t bet on that, not for a minute. It’s possible, but unlikely.
The Iowa/New Hampshire Fund-Raising Curse will very likely still happen, especially to the second- and third-tier Republican primary candidates. If they don’t “show well” in at least one of those two states, they’re going to run out of money -- fast. Then faced with that loss of funding, they’ll drop out and go back to whatever they were doing before they lost those pivotal primaries.
However, despite that winnowing, this year -- 2016 -- the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary really won’t matter.
Because Donald Trump is worth nine billion dollars. More to the point, he has an apparent willingness to spend a lot of his own money, just to win the nomination. He could do dismally in Iowa and pathetically in New Hampshire and, in typical Trump fashion, just laugh it off. Instead of folding his tent, he’ll roar down to South Carolina, then jet off to Nevada, and he’ll keep dropping outlandishly newsworthy “bombs” that put him right back into the media limelight. He’ll once again be defying the pundits and dealing with the media on his terms. The media punditocracy’s “Trump lost Iowa and bombed in New Hampshire so he’s got to drop out now” view of politics won’t matter at all.
Sure, Iowa and New Hampshire will persuade some minor candidates -- men and women who really didn’t have much of a chance anyway -- to give it up and go home. But regardless of how Trump does -- and especially if he does poorly in both Iowa and New Hampshire -- he will defy tradition, defy the odds and continue on as the national front-runner.
Soon, he’ll be competing in “normal” states, states which don’t have primary or caucus voters who have an inflated sense of their own importance. Only then will we be able to tell if he’s got the ability to win over real voters in real primaries and caucuses.
What should prove really interesting -- especially as Trump stays strong despite a hypothetical poor showing in one or both of the two “giant killers” -- is whether Iowa and New Hampshire will ever recover from their failure to dictate, if not the primary season winners, then at least the losers.
Frankly, I think not, but only time will tell. But for this year, they will be irrelevant in picking the winners. When it comes to Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump’s already won, and they don’t even know it.
Ned Barnett was Communications Director for the Nevada Republican Party in 2010, at the height of the Tea Party movement. He has worked as media and strategy director for three state-level presidential campaigns, beginning with Gerald Ford -- where he worked with the late Lee Atwater. He was economic speechwriter for the first South Carolina Republican governor since Reconstruction, a man who later served in Reagan’s cabinet. He now owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Las Vegas, and is working on a book on how to win political campaigns.