Why the Iowa and New Hampshire Primaries Matter (at Least For Democrats)

This year the major parties held firm on the tradition that Iowa and New Hampshire should kick off the presidential campaigns. Last week, for example, the Democratic Party stripped Michigan of its votes at the national convention because, in violation of Party rules, Michigan is holding a primary before February 1. The Party has also done the same to Florida. Under party rules, only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina are allowed to hold primaries before February 1.

Losing both New Hampshire and Iowa can destroy a candidacy. Winning both is almost a sure path to the nomination.

Many party activists complain - perhaps correctly - that these four states do not represent America or the Democratic Party. With the exception of South Carolina, none of them have a very substantial black population. Indeed, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada are very white states. Nor, for that matter are there very many Hispanics or Jews in these states. All three groups are very loyal Democratic constituencies. In addition, with the exception of Iowa, there is not much of a labor movement in these states. While organized labor is not what it once was, it is still an important part of the Democratic Party. These states also do not have large urban centers - again an important component of the Party. Nor are they home to very many ethnic Americans - Irish-, Italian-, Polish-, Greek-, Japanese-, Chinese-, Armenian- or Arab-Americans - who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. These are not even "big" states, with lots of electoral votes. This again makes them seem less like Democratic states. In the last few elections, with the exception of Texas and sometimes Florida, the Democrats have swept all of the large states.

Indeed, these are not obviously Democratic states. New Hampshire is the most Republican state in New England, and only rarely goes for Democratic candidate for President. South Carolina has not voted for a Democrat at the national level since the Party made war on segregation - something the white majority in South Carolina still cannot come to terms with. Iowa and Nevada are swing states that are as likely to vote Republican as they are to vote Democratic. They are not like Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, or California, which these days are almost automatic Democratic states in a presidential election.

Thus Party activists complain that the nomination is being controlled by states that are not in the mainstream of the Party. They are right in their analysis, but instead of opposing this process, all Democrats should embrace it.

The demographics of these states - their swing vote character - is precisely why Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada ought to be the first primary states. They are swing states that have narrowly gone Democratic or Republican for the last twenty years. If a Democrat is to retake the White House the Party must nominate someone who can appeal to moderate, middle of the road voters. The Party must be able to attract those who are not hard core, "yellow dog" Democrats. The kind of voters you find in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

This year the process is particularly well suited to this goal. All three of the major candidates - Clinton, Edwards, and Obama - are probably acceptable to almost everyone in the Party. This is not like 1968 when Vietnam split the Party (and put Nixon in the White House). It is not like 1980 when Carter's mean-spirited incompetence split the Party and ultimately sent millions of Democrats and independents looking elsewhere - to Anderson or Reagan. This year almost everyone talks about who can win, not who is her or his favorite. All three of the leaders have great skills, experience, and qualities. All have liabilities. Some are their immutable characteristics - will America elect a woman or a black man with a funny name? Others involve their life experiences. Is the nation ready for a trial lawyer, a one term Senator, or the wife of an ex-president? Democrats will debate their styles and their ideologies. Is Edwards too focused on the poor?; is Clinton too wishy-washy on the War?; is Obama too much of a foreign policy light weight?

All of these are real questions (not necessarily legitimate ones) that will impact on the election. But, let's face it, if any of these three (or any of the others in the second tier of the pack such as Biden, Dodd, and Richardson) get the nomination, most Democrats will vote for that person. But, getting most - or even all - Democratic votes is not the key to success in November 2008. The key is getting moderates, independents, Republicans who are sick of the war, Bush's deep hypocrisy and corruption, and an economy that is sinking faster every month. A key may also be bringing back to the Party evangelical Christians who may disagree with the candidates on abortion rights or gay rights, but have come to realize that the Republican Party has truly sold its soul for lower tax rates for the rich and a war that no one wants.

What candidate will get those voters? That gets us back to Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. The Democrat who can win in those very non-Democratic states will be the best candidate for the Party. The results might be a surprise. It is, quite frankly, no big deal if Obama wins Michigan, where African Americans form a huge chunk of the Democratic vote. But, if he wins in mostly white Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada - or even does very well - he will be a much more viable candidate. We might be underwhelmed if Edwards won Florida; the headline might read, "a southern candidate wins a southern state." But if he runs well in Nevada or Iowa it will be different. Similarly, Clinton must prove she can win in the heartland, in states with few strong unions and lots of farmers. She did this twice in upstate New York, but that against an almost invisible and meaningless Republican opposition. Now she must do it on a different turf, against impressive opposition.

Thus, at least this year Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada are the perfect states to hold the first Democratic primaries. The candidates who emerge from these contests are likely to be the best to carry the Party and the nation.

Paul Finkelman is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School, in Albany, New York.