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Larry Donnelly: Iowa and New Hampshire - a preview and a primer

The two states play a key role in nominating presidential candidates.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AS IF A general election campaign wasn’t enough for political observers on this island, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are now upon us after literally years of anticipation.

If you can temporarily avert your gaze, one eye anyway, from the twists and turns of #GE2020, here comes a whistle-stop tour through two-storied battlegrounds that are renowned around the globe.

The Iowans caucus on Monday, New Hampshirites vote on Tuesday week.

The role the two states play in nominating presidential candidates has been subject to increasing scrutiny. It is true that they are overwhelmingly white, rural and insufficiently representative of a diverse country.

Yet each has zealously and successfully protected its shared first in the nation status.

Consequently, politicians have been wary of upsetting the apple cart, lest they alienate voters there. Indeed, the two local economies get a boost from the thousands of candidates, strategists, staffers, volunteers, journalists and curious onlookers who flock to relatively sleepy cities like Des Moines and Manchester every four years.

At the outset, what’s unfolding at the moment? In short, the self-described democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, is peaking at the ideal time.

RealClearPolitics.com, an indispensable resource that scientifically aggregates polling data, shows him approximately three percentage points clear of the second-place former vice president, Joe Biden, in Iowa and eight percentage points ahead of Biden in New Hampshire.

Crucially, these numbers could very well shift in the final days.

The electorate in Iowa, especially, is famous (or infamous) for not making its mind up until the last minute. This looks to be no exception.

A New York Times survey at the tail end of January revealed that nearly 40% of voters there were undecided about who they will back 48 hours from now.

There’s more on what lies ahead below.

Why these two places? 

But what are the historical backgrounds and particular nuances of these two de facto institutions in American politics?

Participating in the Iowa caucus does not remotely resemble the experience of voting in Ireland. There is no secret ballot and one’s support for a candidate is on full display in front of friends and neighbours.

It is not an in-and-out process and takes a minimum of half an hour. For these reasons and more, turnout is astonishingly low.

In the Clinton v Sanders slugfest in 2016, a mere 16% of those eligible came out – and that amounted to the second-highest total ever on the Democratic side.

There are 1,678 caucuses within a caucus and they transpire in a broad range of settings, from large auditoriums to people’s sitting rooms.

It is essential to amass at least 15% of the delegates on offer who will later attend county and state conventions.

Presidential aspirants who don’t reach that target limp away from Iowa, and often from the race altogether, with nothing.

Above all, in light of the labyrinthine and arguably anti-democratic rules that govern it, the Iowa caucus tests how well organised the campaigns are. It also indicates who has the momentum and is important as the first measure that actually counts after an endless series of polls.

In this vein, it is worth noting that the Iowa winner in the four previous contested Democratic primaries has gone on to be the party’s nominee to occupy the White House.

The New Hampshire primary is more akin to what Irish voters would be used to. Men and women enter polling stations, mark their ballots privately and depart.

Because it is the first direct test of the strength of a candidate’s appeal to the electorate, some contend that it is more significant and telling than the complicated event in Iowa.

A former governor once boastfully exclaimed: “The people of Iowa pick corn; the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”

Just as Iowa, it is numerically trifling in the overall compilation of the delegates required to capture a nomination. But New Hampshire has produced some unexpected outcomes that gave a strong flavour of the national picture.

pete-buttigieg-in-nashua-new-hampshire Pete Buttigieg in New Hampshire earlier this month. Source: Allison Dinner

‘The comeback kid’ 

1992 is a good example for Democrats and Republicans.

Bill Clinton was able to label himself the “comeback kid” in the wake of a solid second-place finish, despite damaging revelations about an extramarital affair and his military service record in the run-up. And the then-sitting president, George HW Bush, never fully recovered from the moral victory achieved by the rebellious conservative commentator, Pat Buchanan, who garnered a stunning 37% of the vote.

Returning to the present, if Sanders manages to hang on and eke out a win in Iowa, he will have the wind at his back in New Hampshire, which borders his own home state of Vermont.

And if he pulls off two triumphs, the candidacy of his ideological fellow traveller, Elizabeth Warren, immediately goes on life support.

Moreover, there would almost certainly be a reaction in the Democratic Party establishment mirroring the panic and dismay of many prominent Republicans when Donald Trump emerged as the GOP frontrunner in 2016. This scenario could engender the ultimate challenge for Joe Biden, who holds commanding leads in Nevada and South Carolina, which vote later in February.

Iowa is a wildcard, though.

Biden, Warren, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and maybe even another mid-westerner, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, could have a late surge.

In combating the rise of the apparently indefatigable Sanders, the E word –electability – will be a key element of their closing arguments and last-ditch pleas to Iowans, who have surprised before and may again.

Watch that space, notwithstanding the major distractions of the impeachment trial and this weekend’s Super Bowl.

As it happens, I will be in Boston, just down the road from New Hampshire, when the results from Iowa become known and the candidates who remain on their feet make their way to what is nicknamed the Granite State, owing to its extensive rock quarries.

From over there, but in this space, I’ll analyse the fallout from the caucus and consider its potential impact on the verdict my erstwhile neighbours to the north will render on the Democrats seeking to take on President Trump.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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