How the presidential elections work Part 2: Iowa & New Hampshire

Not all primaries are held on the same day. Traditionally, the primaries are first held in the state of Iowa and then in New Hampshire. I say tradition and it might feel as if it was like this forever. But it’s only since 1972 that the parties introduced this calendar.

But why is Iowa first? By now it really has become a tradition. But there is a more practical reason: the complexities in Iowa forced the parties to do so. Iowa itself is a rather unimportant state if you look at the whole of the United States. Nor does the state represent a cross-section of the rest of the country. But the local (democratic) party has such an extensive process to award its delegates it needs to be as early as possible to allow all county, congressional conventions to take place before the final state convention.

Complexities. By now it has to be your favorite word if you are reading up on the American elections. So, here it is: Iowa democrats hold a so-called Caucus. Unlike a Primary, that is not voting with a classic piece of paper or a form. The residents of Iowa all come together at a set time in tennis halls and gymnasiums in the state. Usually it is freezing cold around that time of year, so voting after work requires some effort.

Once in the tennis hall, they form groups who want to vote for a specific candidate. The votes are counted and then the next round takes place. All candidates who pass the minimum vote requirement can take part in the second round.

If you do not pass the threshold, they will exclude you from the next round and your voters can look for another candidate who has. The groups are then counted and then processed in the final result of the state.

The party announces a provisional result on the evening of the caucus. Due to the complexity of the elections in Iowa, it sometimes happens that something changes. Even weeks later.

But what good is Iowa to candidates except for a moderate amount of delegates? Iowa provides a boatload of media attention. Months before the primaries and the days after, journalists have nothing else to talk about but Iowa. For relatively unknown candidates, a good finish in Iowa is of vital importance if they want to compete. For dead favorites, losing in Iowa is a painful defeat that absolutely must be overcome in the next state. 

Second on the calendar: New Hampshire

New Hampshire, in the northeastern United States, is not representative of the entire country either. Just like Iowa. But as much as Iowa plays a role in separating the chaff from the wheat, so does New Hampshire. Usually the two states follow each other within two weeks of each other. In the meantime, the media is reporting on the new dynamic that resulted from the Iowa caucus. Be prepared to hear a lot of talk about ‘momentum’ before and after the primary in New Hampshire.

Why momentum? Because both don’t have enough delegates of their own to have a meaningful impact on the final result. But the timing of both states makes them influential.

Unlike in Iowa, New Hampshire is not a caucus state but holds a ‘normal’ primary. A primary is something that many will recognize. You go to the polls, vote for a candidate and at the end of the evening the votes are counted and a winner is announced.

After New Hampshire, quite a few candidates will drop out. That may sound strange because Iowa and New Hampshire represent less than 1.5% of all residents of the United States. But candidates who score poorly in these states often face financial setbacks immediately after because donors don’t want to spend money on a candidate that doesn’t win. If you can’t advertise, pay your staff or rent office space you can’t compete with candidates who do.

But even if you skip these states to avoid losing and the negative press that come with it, you might be in trouble. In 2020 former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg is trying this approach. Rudy Giuliani tried it too in 2008. He put his focus on the larger states of the US and partly because of that, he did not get a foothold anywhere.

Dropped in? Check the entire series here.

Check back next week for part 3.

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