History Lesson

My Vote Means Nothing

Nearly 20 states are moving up their primaries, but it won’t change a thing.

This is the second part in a two-part article. For Part 1, click here.

Presidential primaries were conceived in the Progressive Era as a tool for democratic reform. But, as I noted yesterday, they have ironically wound up sandblasting the road to the nomination into a bump-free ride for most front-runners after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Victories in those early states—or even close seconds that become “perceived” victories—have typically bestowed big bounces, while losses there have dashed once-formidable aspirants. That nearly 20 states have moved their primaries or caucuses to late January or early February in 2008—most of them scheduled for Feb. 5—represents just the latest stab at challenging the supremacy of these two states and giving others a greater voice in the nomination process. But it’s far from clear that this strategy will work.

For many years, the goal of other states was simply to dethrone New Hampshire. Ever since its emergence in the 1950s as the key primary, critics have grumbled that the Granite State, which is neither large nor reflective of the American populace, had no business hosting the most influential primary. Compounding the unfairness, New Hampshire attained its first-in-the-nation status through dumb luck. Back in 1916, it scheduled its contest for its Town Meeting Day, which fell on the second Tuesday in March—the same day as Minnesota’s vote and one week after Indiana’s. But by 1920, Indiana had kicked its election date back to May and Minnesota scrapped its contest altogether. The Granite State ended up, by default, as the primary primary.

So long as primaries were inconsequential delegate-choosing contests—from the 1920s through the 1940s—no one cared much about this special status. But the attention that the Tom Dewey-Harold Stassen primary fights drew in 1948 prompted Granite State legislators to revise their laws. In 1949, they let delegates on the ballot affiliate with a particular presidential aspirant. Now, for the first time, New Hampshire voters would be not just picking delegates but indicating a preferred nominee. Suddenly it made sense for a candidate who wanted to show that he had a following to court New Hampshire voters. Both Estes Kefauver and Dwight Eisenhower proved their viability with victories there in 1952. And New Hampshire voters appreciated their newfound importance: From 1948 to 1952, turnout in the state climbed from 4,000 to 36,000.

After 1952, it was said that no one could become president without winning New Hampshire. The claim is somewhat misleading. Bill Clinton defied the rule in 1992, when he finished second to Paul Tsongas there but spun his way to victory by declaring himself the “Comeback Kid.” George W. Bush also made it to the White House after losing to John McCain in 2000. And, since 1952, Granite State voters have actually failed to pick their parties’ eventual nominees six of 14 times on the Democratic side (choosing Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Edmund Muskie in 1972, and Gary Hart in 1984, along with Kefauver twice and Tsongas in 1992), and three of 14 times on the Republican side (choosing Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964 and Pat Buchanan in 1996, along with McCain in 2000). Still, if New Hampshire hasn’t batted 1.000, its average has been solid. A candidate’s showing there almost always matters—something that can’t be said of most other states.

As a result of this influence, New Hampshirites have jealously guarded their campaign-season primacy. In 1975, when Massachusetts and Vermont tried to schedule their primaries on the same day as New Hampshire’s, Granite State legislators accelerated their own by a week. They further mandated that their primary be conducted a week before any other state’s.

Soon, however, New Hampshire faced a challenge for prominence from an unlikely rival: Iowa. In 1972, to comply with the McGovern-Fraser reforms, Iowa had moved the first round of its multistage caucuses to January. Yet because Iowa’s contest was a caucus, not a primary—and thus, presumably, less indicative of true popular sentiment—the news media at first paid little attention to it. Few New Hampshirites, for their part, viewed the Hawkeye State as a serious rival for pre-eminence in the nomination process.

In 1980, that changed. Analysts looked back on recent races and saw a pattern in the making. Both George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 had done well in Iowa, and it appeared that a strong showing in the caucus might now be able to give a candidate the kind of boost that had been considered the bequest of New Hampshire alone. It didn’t quite pan out that way: Although Carter repulsed Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge in 1980 by besting him in Iowa, on the Republican side George H.W. Bush, despite asserting that he had “Big Mo” (momentum) coming off his Iowa victory, fell to Ronald Reagan weeks later in New Hampshire.

Iowa has never displaced New Hampshire in importance. But it did establish itself as a secondary proving ground. Many a high-flying candidate’s bid has crashed there: Democrat John Glenn’s in 1984, Republican Phil Gramm’s in 1996, Democrat Howard Dean’s in 2004. Moreover, most of those who skipped Iowa altogether in recent decades—Al Gore in 1988, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark in 2004—found themselves quickly sidelined.

If Iowa managed to establish itself as a junior partner to New Hampshire in certifying front-runners, the much-hailed Southern regional primary that was supposed to counteract New Hampshire’s influence never materialized. Starting in 1980, when three Southern states held early primaries in an effort to help Carter fend off Kennedy’s challenge, Dixie Democrats hoped to cobble together a regional primary to balance the effects of the Midwest’s taste for populists and New England’s preference for liberals. In 1984, pundits began to speak of “Super Tuesday”—a date soon after the New Hampshire contest on which multiple states scheduled primaries—emphasizing the importance of the Southern states voting that day. But other states outside Dixie also piled on. By 1988, Super Tuesday had expanded so much as to dilute any regional influence. Thus, while Al Gore, who had done poorly in New Hampshire, won several contests that day, so did Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the overall front-runner. Thereafter, he faced no serious threat to his nomination.

Super Tuesday—like so much in the history of presidential primaries—has backfired. The greater the number of states that voted in the mega-primary, it turned out, the harder it became for candidates to personally campaign or even to spend money in all of them. Thus, “free media”—evening news coverage, magazine features, newspaper op-eds—became the key to scoring across-the-board victories on Super Tuesday or other early multiprimary days. And the key to getting free media turned out to be … winning Iowa and New Hampshire.

Obviously, no one can predict with confidence how this year’s heavy front-loading will play out. But the crowding of early primary dates seems just as likely to reinforce New Hampshire’s kingmaking mystique, or Iowa’s, as to strip it away. If so, the only difference would be that this year, after Feb. 5, the time between the effective end of the nomination campaign and the national conventions will seem all the more protracted and all the more lifeless than it has in the past.