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Iowa, New Hampshire matter

Though both result from accidents of geography, only two Republicans have adopted realistic strategies for winning their party’s presidential nomination — Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. That’s not to say another candidate won’t emerge, but just now they seem to be the only contenders focused on winning in Iowa or New Hampshire.

It has become foolishly fashionable to denigrate the importance of these early contests by examining each individually. The weekend Wall Street Journal summed up the new thinking — “New Hampshire and Iowa are fighting over which is better at picking eventual primary winners [presumably nominees], but neither has a high success rate.” The “data” display reveals that only two of the last five Republican winners in Iowa garnered the party’s nomination, while only three in five New Hampshire victors became the party’s general-election standard-bearer.

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Such analyses miss the dramatic joint impact of these two contests. Since 1976, when proliferating primaries and caucuses became the basis for selecting convention delegates, every single nominee but one, in both parties, won either Iowa or New Hampshire. 

(The singular exception occurred in 1992 when Iowa’s favorite son, Tom Harkin, rendered the Democratic caucuses moot, while Paul Tsongas’s victory in his neighboring New Hampshire, along with Bill Clinton’s powerful second-place comeback finish, gave the contest a unique structure.)

Victories in these early contests move votes elsewhere. In 1980, George Bush defeated Ronald Reagan by two points in Iowa and his national poll standing more than doubled, though Reagan’s massive New Hampshire victory propelled him to the nomination. Averaging the polls, John Kerry picked up about 20 points nationally from his Iowa win and another 13 as a result of his New Hampshire victory. In 2008, John McCain added over 20 points to his national vote following his New Hampshire win.

As I have noted in earlier columns, what George Bush labeled the “Big Mo’ ” rests fundamentally on the two V’s — visibility and viability — and the crucial cash that comes with both. 

Historically, Iowa and New Hampshire account for about half the press coverage of the entire primary season, with the winners absorbing the lion’s share. Moreover, the winner’s coverage is almost all positive. That intense burst of positive publicity is sufficient to fuel the rise of any candidate, while those who fail to partake of the victor’s spoils never catch up. John Kerry’s name identification and favorability both skyrocketed by 30 points after his Iowa and New Hampshire triumphs. Mike Huckabee added 21 points in name ID after his Iowa victory.

Voter assessments of candidates’ viability matter as well. Most people want to support a candidate whom they believe has some chance of winning. Early victories provide incontrovertible evidence that a candidate can win. Losses cast at least some doubt on viability  — doubts the media reinforce by asking losers daily what went wrong and how long they plan to remain in the race. 

This brief historical excursus brings us back to the Republicans of 2012. Having served as governor of a state whose media cover much of New Hampshire, Mitt Romney enjoys a real advantage there — and this time no John McCain, with a history of winning New Hampshire, bars his way. Though not as visible in Iowa as Romney is in New Hampshire, Pawlenty neighbors the Hawkeye State and is taking advantage of both his Midwest roots and his ability to easily ship Minnesota-based volunteers across the border — giving him a leg up, especially in light of Romney’s reluctance to contest Iowa.

These two are pursuing strategies rightly focused on winning early. Any other Republican who wants the nomination needs to figure out how to emerge victorious in one or the other of these “first” states before proceeding to potentially decisive showdowns in South Carolina, Nevada and perhaps Florida.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.