Next year will go down in history books as the year that Iowa and New Hampshire lost their supremacy in the presidential nominating contests.
Well, not officially. But Republican strategists believe this topsy-turvy primary season may have revealed a new demand for national candidates, and in the process dealt a serious blow to the best claim both states have to their front-of-the pack position.
In interviews with more than a dozen Republican strategists, both those involved in the 2012 presidential campaign and those sitting on the sidelines, most cited three lessons learned already: National debates matter more than ever; the media's focus on vanity campaigns has created a nominating process made for cable television; and the rise of social media networks makes bloggers as influential and accessible as traditional news media. All of which reduces the focus on building the sorts of ground organizations candidates used to need to win Iowa or New Hampshire. And that will only feed anyone hungry to deny those states their spot at the head of the order.
Now, just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, there is no candidate who seems likely to surprise the field in one of the first two primary states then steadily build into a serious contender. There will be no Comeback Kid, a title Bill Clinton won after coming in second in New Hampshire in 1992. There will be no repeat of John McCain's rise from the ashes, fueled by a commitment to retail campaigning at countless town hall meetings.
Instead, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — the front-runner all year — seems as likely as ever to steamroll the field. The only contender who seriously challenges Romney's ability to run the table, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, could still win Iowa but his chances down the line will be dimmed as the establishment wing of the party finally, more than a little reluctantly, falls in line behind Romney.
Throughout the Republican nominating process, a series of candidates have captured national attention on the debate stage, been subjected to the harsh glare of the media spotlight, and withered under the pressure. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain (twice), and now former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have all had their fortnight in the stratosphere then sunk back to earth.
"Debates are now the first primary," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster sitting out the 2012 race (Bolger's firm, Public Opinion Strategies, is Mitt Romney's lead pollster).
"The dozens of debates have made it possible for some candidates with little or no money or organization to show up in the polls, and some of those candidates show up in polling numbers despite little time in New Hampshire or Iowa," said Steve Duprey, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "All of the candidates have less money and have had to spend far more time this cycle raising money."
The Social Network
Each time a new anti-Romney candidate emerged, he or she collapsed within weeks. The distance between peak and trough, in other words, is shrinking. These ascents and descents are hastened, some Republicans say, by newly crucial social media.
"The echo chamber has been exponentially heightened and strengthened by social media," said Rich Killion, a New Hampshire Republican strategist who worked for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "The water cooler is not at work and you don’t have to wait until tomorrow to share your opinions; it's at your fingertips and you can do it in your pajamas in the middle of night or in the back of a cab racing to the airport.
"Great moments get amplified and spread out beyond reach dreamed of before," he continued. “Perceptions get hardened quicker and harder to shake."
Former New Hampshire state party chairman Fergus Cullen chimed in: "The campaign more closely resembles reality TV shows, and a candidate’s goal in a debate is to have a moment that fits in a 15-second YouTube video that can go viral on Facebook. Jimmy Carter had 12 months to develop as a candidate, largely out of sight. Rick Perry didn’t have 12 minutes. It means candidates are so much less candid and more disciplined — but it also means we lose the revealing moments where we see the candidates as real people."
The Cable Candidates
Meanwhile, the 2012 contest has been marked by the emergence of candidates who have used presidential campaigns as a way to sell books and make a profit. Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin never went beyond flirting with bids in the media, though cable news networks hungry for ratings covered their every move.
Another style of non-candidate also emerged: With a relatively disappointing field on the Republican side, draft movements became real. Conservative media elites in Washington pined after Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who at least asked around about the prospects of making a late entrance. Others wanted Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in the race; he bowed out only after consulting his family. And the most serious would-be contender, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, worried Romney's team so much that they put pressure on him to sit this round out. Christie obliged, in a sign of how fluid the race had become, in October, settling the field just three months before Iowans will vote.
The candidates who have run the most traditional campaigns this year have been unable to convert that hard work into any kind of momentum. Polls show former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the first candidate to visit all of Iowa's 99 counties, mired in single digits. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has held more than 125 events in New Hampshire, has broken into double digits, but he has one-third the support that Romney enjoys. And Pawlenty, who built the most traditional campaign outside of Romney's, won't even be on the ballot since he left the race in August.
"Because of the late start and the inability of voters to personally see candidates, they tuned in to debates more than ever," said Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire Republican who signed on to work with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour before Barbour decided to take a pass. "This also amplified missteps by candidates, Perry in particular, and caused huge swings in polling nationally and even in the early primary states. The late fundraising focus has candidates holding onto every dollar they have and just now are starting to spend, when in many cases it is too late because voters have defined their images of candidates."
The National Primary
Other states have long coveted the attention (not to mention the tens of millions of dollars in economic activity) an early slot on the primary calendar guarantees. Florida's refusal to move its primary in compliance with Republican National Committee rules earlier this year forced Iowa and New Hampshire to move up; Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, and other states have put similar pressure on the nominating calendar, despite warnings of RNC-levied penalties.
"Come on Iowa. Pick Ron Paul so we can have the first contests of 2016 in real states," Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson said in an only half-joking tweet on Monday.
Now, polling shows a Paul victory is a real prospect.
In some ways, Paul winning would be better for Iowa and New Hampshire than if someone else surged to the front. Gingrich's late rise, fueled almost entirely by televised debates for a campaign bereft of a field operation, will be a fatal blow to Iowa's and New Hampshire's positions, if it translates into a win.
"The moral authority that we have is that you have to be here and let everyday Americans look you in the eye and ask you a question," said one veteran Iowa Republican, who requested anonymity. "I really hope, for the future of Iowa and New Hampshire and the future of the process, to some degree being organized is vindicated."
The effects of a delayed start, the prominence of social networks and cable news, debates, and the vanity candidates who have denied oxygen to more serious contenders, have fundamentally changed the presidential-nominating system. Which direction Republicans — and Democrats, who face their own primary in 2016 — choose, and whether they try to stack the deck in favor of Iowa or New Hampshire, is up in the air, but it's a question that will demand an answer sooner than later.