Iowa and New Hampshire: Believe the Hype

In his Sunday New York Times column, Frank Bruni laments the behavior of some campaign journalists (he does not exempt himself), and urges them to adopt some more enlightened behavior with regards to presidential campaigns. Some of the list is pretty good, actually, but I wanted to speak about the first item, “Stop hyping Iowa and New Hampshire.” According to Bruni,

The importance of the contests stems chiefly from our coverage of them; the momentum that winners and runners-up carry out of them is as much our decree as it is anything organic.

He then goes on to explain how demographically unrepresentative Iowa and New Hampshire are of the rest of the country and how few people are actually involved in these contests.

The insinuation here is that these contests are only important because campaign reporters cover them, and we could actually deprive these two small, rural states of their outsized impact on our nomination choices if we could somehow have reporters not pay attention to them. The problem with this argument is it seems to assume that the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are creatures of the media. They are not. It is the parties that have puffed these contests up into events of importance that far outweigh the number of people involved.

Yes, the parties saw reporters as part of the nomination process when they developed this nominating system over the past four decades, and media expectations actually play an important role. The fact that, say, Bill Clinton outperformed media expectations in New Hampshire in 1992 helped convince some party insiders that he had the tenacity to wage a strong campaign and that voters wouldn’t necessarily toss him overboard for his associations with some petty scandals.

Nonetheless, it is ultimately the parties, not the press, that keep these early nominating contests important. Party insiders have set these contests up as opportunities to observe candidates conducting retail politics, organizing ground games, participating in debates, and getting out the vote. Those same insiders determine who can raise money and assemble staff for those contests. Party elites in New Hampshire and Iowa, through the use of their endorsements, often determine who even gets to be a candidate in their contests. And candidates who do poorly in these early contests tend to drop out very quickly — not necessarily because the media tell them it’s over (the press can be very fickle about these things), but because no insiders will fund or endorse them after that.

So, by all means, let’s follow Bruni’s advice to cover more substance in politics and devote less attention to candidates’ spouses, but focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire is one thing the campaign media are absolutely getting right.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.