For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire were the two gateways that directed the flow of big donor money to election candidates. This year’s race is exposing the artificial nature of this arrangement.
The positioning of Iowa as an American political bellwether was more by accident than design–the Democratic Party, in the aftermath of violent protests during its 1968 National Convention, decided to spread out the nominating schedule at the state level. For Iowa, whose caucus procedures were complex, the decision was made to start early. This meant that in 1972, Iowa was the first state to undertake a nomination process. The mainstream media paid scant attention to the Iowa Caucus until 1976, when Jimmy Carter rode the momentum he’d gained from winning Iowa all the way to the White House.
Iowa has emerged as politically relevant because, as the first state where a potential candidate for the office of the presidency can gauge his or her level of support, it serves as a springboard for a candidate going forward. Caucusing is a resource-intensive process, and most candidates pour the bulk of their limited financial resources into the state in an effort to harness what President George H. W. Bush referred to as the “Big Mo”—the ability to break free of the pack and garner the attention of potential donors from whom the lifeblood of the American political process–money–comes.
Iowa’s role was straightforward – conduct the caucus, tally the vote, and send the candidates on to New Hampshire either with the winds of ‘Big Mo’ filling their sails, or stymied by the doldrums of political obscurity. The winner of Iowa entered the next phase of the political nominating process – the New Hampshire primary – with the kind of national attention that attracted the money needed to propel their campaign throughout the remainder of a long and costly nominating process.
This process had performed as designed – until last week, when a vote counting application failed, leaving the final tallying of votes in a flux. In the opening, several top-placing candidates all but declared themselves winners, but the momentum was lost, and they were denied the all-important Big Mo.
Americans are stingy with their money when it comes to politics. In many ways, donating money to a politician is like placing a bet on a horse at a racetrack – you only put your money down on one you pick to be a winner. By an accident of history, Iowa had emerged as the ‘racing guide,’ so to speak, of American politics, a process of political validation which determined if a candidate had the legs and heart to see the race through. And for decades this archaic system served its masters – the political donor class – well.
And then Iowa fumbled the vote, exposing the quaint and inefficient caucus system for the politically irrelevant process it truly was, and pulling its second pillar – New Hampshire – down with it.
Unlike Iowa, the primacy of the New Hampshire primary in the American political process was a purposeful act, a byproduct of specific legislation in New Hampshire that mandated as a matter of law that its primary predate all others in the nation by at least seven days. The “one-two” political punches delivered by Iowa and New Hampshire enable two states which otherwise would not register on any normal metric measuring national influence to operate far above their weight. The political apparatus of America, built around a system of donors who underwrite approved candidates, had embraced the Iowa-New Hampshire model, imbuing it with a sense of credibility that it otherwise would not garner.
The failure of Iowa to deliver the Big Mo, however, underscored the political irrelevance of New Hampshire in the eyes of most Americans, raising the question as to whether or not it should be permitted to continue in the role of political “king maker.”
Money buys ideas, not the other way around
The role of money in American politics is an ugly reality; American political campaigns are among the longest and most expensive in the world. Indeed, the need for a candidate to raise the funds necessary to sustain a successful bid for office undermines the very notion of the kind of democratic values the American electoral process is supposed to embrace. Politics is supposed to be a battle of ideas. However, when money is injected into the process, politics becomes merely a battle of the ideas that can attract big donor dollars. The ability to raise money becomes the all important first wicket through which all aspiring politicians must pass, leaving many good ideas dormant due to a lack of funding.
Void of the Iowa Big Mo and the fundraising potential attached to it, the New Hampshire primary helped shine a light on the disparity and differences in the sources of funding drawn-on by the various candidates. The greatest difference existed between Bernie Sanders, who ran a largely grass-roots-funded campaign, and Pete Buttigieg, whose campaign is underwritten by several big-money donors. As different as these two candidates are, both in terms of policies and sources of campaign funding, the reality is that they will both be competing for a finite amount of campaign money down the road. So, too, will the other candidates who survived the Iowa-New Hampshire political crucible–Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden among them.
The success or failure of a presidential campaign hinges on the elusive dollar, and not necessarily the ideas being bought. For better or worse, those ideas were shaped by the combined Iowa-New Hampshire experience. In the aftermath of the failed Iowa caucus, and the subsequent emphasis placed on the New Hampshire primary, America has to ask itself some hard questions about the role played by money in a national election, and the role played by Iowa and New Hampshire in allocating that money. It is unlikely that money and politics can be separated in America. But it is equally unlikely that the American political power brokers will allow Iowa and New Hampshire to continue to play the outsized roles they have to date. Money matters; Iowa and New Hampshire do not.
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