There are two competing theories of the Democratic presidential-campaign process. The first is the traditional New Hampshire- and Iowa-centered argument that the candidate with early momentum will succeed. Since 1972, only one Democrat (Bill Clinton) has won the nomination without winning at least one of the two early states. And Clinton counts New Hampshire as a success story, after finishing a strong second in the state’s 1992 primary while being battered by scandal.
“The earned media that you earn in a state like Iowa … can really propel a candidate into the No. 1 spot heading into Super Tuesday,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told me on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers this month.
The other theory is that identity politics will drive the primary process, with voters favoring candidates who look like themselves. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the most racially homogeneous states in the country, so the thinking goes that they would be less hospitable to nonwhite candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio could have an advantage with blue-collar whites who predominate Iowa’s caucuses, while New Hampshire would be friendly turf for neighboring senators like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Under this scenario, the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses would be a better barometer for future success, especially considering that so many future primary contests will be in Deep South and Sun Belt states with diverse Democratic electorates. Just wait a couple weeks, and the primaries better reflect the reality of today’s Democratic Party.
But downplaying New Hampshire and Iowa remains an awfully risky strategy, especially in a year with a historic number of candidates running. The traditional role of the first two states is to narrow down the field, and candidates will need to prove some measure of viability there—even if the states aren’t ideal launching pads for some individual campaigns.
With electability a major issue for Democratic voters, candidates will also need to show they can build broad coalitions that show their long-term viability. Barack Obama would never have won the nomination in 2008 if he didn’t prove that an African-American candidate could win an overwhelmingly white state. Iowa gave Obama critical momentum by convincing skeptical African-Americans and rank-and-file Democrats alike that he was an electable choice.
Most of the announced presidential candidates are acting as if Iowa and New Hampshire are make-or-break contests, kicking off their campaigns with multiple visits to the early-voting states.
Harris, who has emerged as an early front-runner, appeared on a nationally televised CNN town hall in Des Moines, and is making her second visit to the state as an announced candidate this week. “We’ve got a hell of a chance in Iowa to compete strongly. We’ve got to emerge in the top tier in both of those first two states,” a senior Harris strategist said.
The biggest question is whether Iowa and New Hampshire will be moderating influences on the process or reflect the growing progressivism within the Democratic Party. Sanders came within 355 votes of defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and then swamped her in the New Hampshire primary. Liberals made up 68 percent of the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic electorate in 2016, a double-digit spike from the last competitive contests back in 2008.
But next year’s electorate could look a lot different. Assuming there isn’t a competitive Republican primary, independents (and Republicans) could choose to participate in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Iowa just proposed allowing tele-voting for the caucuses, potentially expanding the pool of caucus-goers beyond the most liberal activists in the state.
That would make the first two states especially important testing grounds for the two Midwestern senators—Brown and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—who have declined to endorse the most ambitious items on the progressive wish list. It’s easy to imagine Brown getting traction among Iowa's and New Hampshire’s many blue-collar voters with his “dignity of work” message as he mulls a campaign, while also winning support from the moderate faction of the party. Klobuchar could comfortably forge a similarly broad coalition with women, moderates, and working-class Democrats.
That’s always been the role Iowa and New Hampshire have played, with their voters providing the relentless scrutiny to separate the top prospects from the also-rans—and it’s unlikely to change in 2020. Early polls at this point mean very little. It’s easy to see an underdog like Klobuchar translating an Iowa victory into national momentum.
Conversely, without the stamp of approval from at least one of the first two states, it’s hard to see the formula for a turnaround. Just ask Rudy Giuliani about whether it’s good strategy to rely on one later state (Florida in 2008) for presidential success.