The turning of the New Year is a dandy time for us to pay quizzical homage to the upcoming Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. Herein, a data-based effort to make some small sense of this quadrennial brouhaha.
Fair warning: It might not work.
It once seemed clear why New Hampshire mattered: Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, no one who lost the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary went on to get elected president. Granite Staters spent four decades invoking this factoid, proof positive of their power, prescience and uncanny ability to back the right horse.
Then it crumbled, as coincidences do – yet another alleged bellwether done in by the law of averages. The Democrats went first: Bill Clinton lost New Hampshire but won the presidency in 1992. And then George W. Bush did it in 2000. (Plenty, indeed, don't even get nominated: New Hampshire winners have gone on to the eventual nomination in seven of 10 contested Republican races since 1952, and in just six of 12 on the Democratic side. The total success rate, 13 out of 22, is a tepid 59 percent.)
At least there’s Iowa – only its track record is worse. Just once since Iowa fever took hold in 1972 has the winner of a contested caucus been elected president – Bush in 2000, when he went mano-a-mano with… Steve Forbes. The stronger contender, John McCain, sat it out, pretty much presaging the McCain/Giuliani/Thompson approach this time around.
The gotcha squad might double the score to say that Jimmy Carter took an Iowa victory to election in 1976. So make it two. But Carter didn’t really win… he came in second, to “uncommitted,” an option that represents one of the many oddities of Iowa caucusing. (Intramurally, counting Carter in ’76 and Ed Muskie in ’72 – he also actually lost to “uncommitted” – Iowa winners have gone on to take their party’s nomination five of eight times on the Democratic side, and just two of five times in contested Republican races – a 54 percent hit rate.)
The real fuss, it seems, derives simply from being first – the first caucus, the first primary – and not much else, kind of like the teen-ager who camps out for a week outside the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., to be first in line for Hannah Montana tickets.
There is a payoff: She gets a good seat; Iowa and New Hampshire get first crack at the winnowing process, not so much selecting the next president as culling untenables from the field. The compressed calendar, though, may now mitigate some of that effect.
It’s conjecture whether Iowa and New Hampshire winnow better or any differently than any other states would. There’d be some solace in their obstinate firstness, perhaps, if they looked a lot like the rest of the country, ensuring a mix of issues and voter groups that translate well to the national stage. But consider:
-Ninety-four percent of New Hampshire residents and 92 percent of Iowans are white, compared with 67 percent of the nation’s population.
-Just 55 percent of Iowans and 62 percent in New Hampshire live in or around a major population center, compared with 83 percent of all Americans. Four in 10 Iowans and New Hampshirites alike live in outright rural areas, double the national rate.
-Among the country’s 251 cities with more than 100,000 people, Iowa’s biggest rank 107th (Des Moines) and 190th (Cedar Rapids). New Hampshire’s biggest, Manchester, ranks 216th. Out of 251.
-Three percent of Iowans and 5 percent of New Hampshire residents were born in a foreign country, compared with 12 percent of all Americans. Of the 1.1 million immigrants admitted legally to the country in 2005, 4,536 settled in Iowa, fewer than one-half of one percent; 3,298 in New Hampshire, fewer than one-third of one percent.
-Iowa’s median household income, $41,350, is just under the national average, $44,468. New Hampshire’s, by contrast, is far above it – $55,589.
In the Iowa caucuses, moreover, hardly anyone actually participates. Total turnout in the 2004 Democratic caucuses was 122,193; peak reported Republican turnout was just over 108,000, back in 1988. This in a state that’s home to around 2.2 million eligible voters.
New Hampshire does much better in turnout: it peaked at 42 percent of the voting-age population in 2000, far more than is customary in other states. And pre-election polling suggests a lot higher turnout this time, with hot races in both parties. Still, Iowa and New Hampshire combined will have hundreds of thousands of voters in a primary process that ultimately will involve tens of millions.
There’s a particular oddity about the makeup of voters in the New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primaries: A heck of a lot of them aren’t Democrats or Republicans. In the 2004 Democratic primary, for instance, a whopping 45 percent of voters were registered independents. So were 32 percent in the 2000 Republican primary. That’s a lot more independents than participate elsewhere – partly because of voting rules, and partly because, hey, that’s New Hampshire. Bottom line: It can help insurgents (e.g., McCain 2000, Buchanan 1996, Tsongas 1992). But it can’t give them legs.
Another quirk is that Democratic turnout in New Hampshire is sometimes predominantly female – 62 percent in 2000, 57 percent in 1996 – while Republican turnout tends to be broadly (57 percent) male. And New Hampshire Republican voters are much less likely than those elsewhere to be evangelical Christians (listen up, Mike Huckabee); indeed, in our last poll there, 52 percent of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire favored legal abortion. You heard right.
Iowa can have its own oddities as well; the Democratic race in 2000, for instance, saw especially high turnout among union voters – one in three, compared with 15 percent of the population nationally. The commitment a caucus requires (this is not drop-in voting) makes get-out-the-vote efforts essential. And as far as pre-election polls modeling Iowa’s minuscule turnout… let us say: Aaagh.
Both these states look different on issues as well as demographics. The economy, for example, ranks much lower both in Iowa and New Hampshire than it does nationally. Republicans in both states rank immigration much higher, and Democrats rank health care much higher, than do their counterparts in the country as a whole.
In the end, though, to get the rapt attention of every political junkie in America, Iowa and New Hampshire don’t have to look like the rest of the country. Nor do they have to pick winners. They only have to go first. And that they will, just a few days hence.