March 29, 2023

Why do Iowa and New Hampshire Get to Go First?

Two of the best covered events in the race for the presidential nomination are the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary. Even though both are relatively small states, as the first elections of their type in the country, and can have a great deal of impact on the nominating process. The primary reasons that they get to go first are traditional, and their first-place status has been attacked in the past couple of primaries.

The Iowa Caucus is the first nominating contest in the country because their law says so. In fact, Iowa law requires the caucus to be held at least 8 days before any other caucus or primary and no later than the fourth Monday of February. New Hampshire has a similar law which has led to them holding the nation’s first primary since 1920.

Ultimately, Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first because the parties and other states generally let them go first. Because of their small sizes, they have historically allowed candidates to get face-to-face with a number of people, shaking hands rather than raising funds. This intimate “retail” politicking allows not just residents of Iowa and New Hampshire, but also residents of the other 48 states watching through the media, to see how the candidates act.

In this hyper-covered election cycle, though, the traditional advantages of Iowa and New Hampshire have been negated. As of December 8, Newt Gingrich has achieved second-place status in New Hampshire even though he has not placed a great deal of focus on the state, and both Newt and Mitt Romney have been consistently polling in the top three in Iowa even though both have spent relatively little time there. As both the media and the social networks continue to expand their influence over the election system, there is a high likelihood that traditional retail politics will become less important, for better or worse.

Other states have attempted to attack Iowa and New Hampshire’s front-runner status. In both 2008 and 2012, Florida moved its primary earlier, forcing New Hampshire and Iowa to reschedule their contests. Nevada has also attempted to co-opt Iowa and New Hampshire. The political parties have typically protected them by threatening not to seat delegates from states whose primaries are held too early. The argument from states like Florida is it makes little sense to allow two small and, to some extent, homogeneous states to determine the entire country’s candidate pool. As time goes on, it is likely that their argument will overwhelm the tradition which protects Iowa and New Hampshire today.


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