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Why it all begins in Iowa, N.H.

Why do Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first in the nomination process every four years? Why can't voters in states with larger populations to get a chance to cast the first ballots?'s Tom Curry explains how tradition and inertia keep the system as it is.
Kerry Campaign Trys To Gain Ground In Iowa
A sign in a Des Moines campaign office counts the days until Iowa voters kick off the nation's presidential nomination process.Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Why do Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first in the nomination process every four years? Iowa holds its presidential caucuses next Monday night, and New Hampshire holds its primary on Jan. 27.

Why aren’t the rules changed to allow voters in states with larger populations, such as Pennsylvania, to get a chance to cast the first ballots?

Some sort of rotation seems overdue. Ever since 1920, New Hampshire has been the first state in the nation to conduct a presidential primary. Its importance dates back to 1952 when political novice Dwight Eisenhower beat veteran Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio to win the New Hampshire primary, putting Ike on track to securing the Republican nomination.

Carter's success in Iowa
Iowa’s prominence is more recent, dating to Jimmy Carter’s effort there in 1976. As the campaign started, Carter was a former one-term governor of Georgia, a pygmy in a field that included heavyweights such as Sen. Henry Jackson, the Democrats’ pre-eminent national security expert.

But in the Iowa caucuses, an event in which just 38,500 people took part (and which Jackson had chosen to bypass), Carter won 28 percent of the vote, finishing second to “uncommitted,” which was the preference of 37 percent of the Democrats who took part.

A front-page New York Times article by R.W. Apple the morning after the caucuses helped make Carter’s performance a major story, transforming him into a credible contender for the nomination. Carter “scored an impressive victory,” Apple opined.

Carter parlayed the coverage of the Iowa outcome into a triumph in the New Hampshire primary, where he defeated Arizona Rep. Morris Udall. He went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

Ever since 1976, the Iowa caucuses have satisfied the news media’s and the political professionals’ pent-up demand for an early vote.

After months of polls and fund-raising numbers, Iowa and, a week later, New Hampshire provide flesh-and-blood voters.

Tiny electorate
But not only do the two states exert a disproportionate role in winnowing out the field of contenders, only a small number of voters in each state take part.

For instance, four years ago, a total of 156,862 people, about the number of people who live in Santa Rosa, Calif., voted in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire. Al Gore won with 49 percent to Bill Bradley's 45 percent.

Reporters and editors had helped build Bradley up in the summer of 1999 as the maverick challenger to Gore, deeming him to have that intangible factor called "momentum."

Then when a tiny sample of the Democratic electorate, 76,897 people in New Hampshire, said they preferred Gore, the media and Democratic donors decided that Bradley’s candidacy was kaput.

It is an odd system, but one not likely to change any time soon, said Northeastern University political science professor William Mayer, co-author of a new book called "The Front-Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations."

“There are a lot of people who genuinely believe it is desirable to have the nomination process start small,” Mayer said. “If you started up on the first day with five or 10 relatively large states, you would have a system in which a huge advantage would go to candidates who were well-funded and well-known.”

As for why Iowa and New Hampshire in particular — rather than two other states roughly the same size, say, Rhode Island and Oklahoma — always get the privilege of opening the race, Mayer said, “the short answer is they kind of stumbled into those positions by accident and now are doing everything possible to retain them.”

Taking surrogates' role seriously
Kathy Sullivan, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, defends her state’s role.

“We’ve been doing it for so long that the voters here take their role as the surrogates for the nation very seriously and are very educated on the issues by the time the primary rolls around,” she said. “To us, it is almost a sacred privilege.”

A Republican, the late Hugh Gregg, former New Hampshire governor, once put it this way: "We don't always concentrate on the issues. We always concentrate on the character of the candidate. It works here. We serve the nation in the way no one else can."

“People talk about New Hampshire not being diverse or representative of the rest of the country,” Sullivan said. “But New Hampshire is not the state it was in the 1950s. My husband is a principal at the largest high school in Manchester, which is probably the most urban high school in the state, and he’s got 60 different languages spoken. We have populations of Somalis, Iranians, Iraqis; we have sufficient numbers of Muslims that there’s an effort being made to build a mosque in Manchester.”

The preferred place of Iowa and New Hampshire is cemented by tradition, by party rules and by the difficulty of getting the state legislatures and political parties to agree on how to alter the process.

Murray points out that since 1900 more than 300 bills have been introduced in Congress to require a national primary election, but a series of Supreme Court rulings suggests that Congress lacks the constitutional power to legislate on this matter. The state legislatures and political parties set the rules for when primaries take place and how delegates are apportioned.

Since 1980, the Democratic Party has had a "window" in which states and territories may hold primaries or caucuses. This year, under DNC rules, the window opens on Feb. 3 and closes on June 8. 

The rules specify that Iowa and New Hampshire can hold their contests before the opening of the “window.” Iowa can hold its caucuses no more than 15 days before Feb. 3, and New Hampshire its primary no more than seven days before Feb. 3.

Accelerated schedule
Adding to the acceleration of the process, the DNC has pushed its calendar ahead a month: In 2000, the DNC-approved “window” did not open until the first Tuesday in March, leaving four weeks of relative calm after New Hampshire’s Feb. 1 primary.

This year, that gap will be filled with a spate of primaries and caucuses in February, including contests in South Carolina, Arizona, and five other states on Feb. 3, in Michigan on Feb. 7 and in Wisconsin on Feb 17.

By March 3, nearly 60 percent of all the delegates will have been chosen.

Compare this breathless pace with the calendar in 1960, when the New Hampshire primary was not held until March 8. Sen. John Kennedy did not score his decisive victory over his rival Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary until May 10.

Even as recently as 1992, by the end of the seventh week of primaries, Democrats had chosen 40 percent of the delegates to their convention; this year, by about the same time, they’ll have chosen nearly 60 percent of their delegates.

The compressed schedule makes it imperative that candidates have enough money to jump from Iowa and New Hampshire to the states that hold contests on Feb. 3 and the following two weeks. They will need to already have deployed staff and run ads in those states.

It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for an underdog to capitalize on a surprisingly good performance in Iowa or New Hampshire, as Carter did in 1976, or Gary Hart did in his challenge to Walter Mondale in 1984.