New Hampshire is one of the smallest U.S. states, with a population to match, yet every four years this tiny state plays a key role in the presidential election.
Campaigns start with the Iowa caucuses on Monday, Feb. 1, followed by New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday, Feb. 9. With caucuses, candidates meet in-person with party members at the grassroots level. In a primary, people vote by secret ballot to choose their political party’s candidate for elected office.
These early contests set the stage for the presidential nomination campaigns. A big loss has the potential to end a campaign, while candidates who win, or do better than expected, garner positive momentum that can translate into more press coverage and a better ability to raise funds, extending the life of a campaign for at least for a few more months.
Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, which was the first sign he might be a viable candidate for president.
“If Iowa was just another state in the nomination process, stuck there somewhere in the middle of the sequence of state primaries and caucuses, I don’t think anybody would put much importance on it at all,” said Mark Rozell, acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. “They would dismiss it as not very representative…but given its ‘first in the nation’ position in the contest, Iowa becomes very important.”
Not very representative because both Iowa and New Hampshire are among the whitest states in the nation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Iowa’s population was 92 percent white in 2014, while New Hampshire’s was 94 percent white. The United States overall, however, is a much more diverse nation. In 2010, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 63.7 percent of the U.S. population.
Historically, New Hampshire has been a better predictor of who will win the election, for both Democrats and Republicans, than the Iowa caucus.
Defenders of the current process argue that the Iowa and New Hampshire contests play an important role in keeping candidates connected to the voters, forcing aspiring presidents to go to local public forums in people’s living rooms and meet with voters on street corners or in coffee shops.
“Candidates spend a lot of time meeting people where they are and that really means something in this era of mass mediated politics where many feel political leaders become disengaged from the public,” Rozell said. “To be forced into this process, whereby candidates have to meet people where they are, makes it a lot more real, in a sense, and there is significant value to that.“
While Iowa gets a lot of attention, Rozell believes New Hampshire, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states ultimately have more influence on the process.
Super Tuesday, which will be held on Tuesday, March 1, is when the greatest number of states hold primaries or caucuses. Super Tuesday states include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia.
Super Tuesday was put into place by Democrats seeking to reduce the influence of New Hampshire and Iowa, give the South more weight in the presidential contest, and to give more centrist candidates a better chance of making their mark.
Interested observers have long debated changing the nomination process, arguing that national primaries, or a different sequence in the primaries and caucuses, would temper Iowa and New Hampshire’s outsize influence in determining who the next president will be.
“But these proposals seem to go nowhere,” Rozell said, “so that Iowa and New Hampshire have become, it seems, almost the permanent first and second positions in the presidential nomination campaigns, so anybody running for the presidency had better know a lot about corn.”