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Mellman: Iowa, New Hampshire and the GOP nomination  

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DAVENPORT, IOWA – MARCH 13: Former President Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered for an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13, 2023 in Davenport, Iowa. Trump’s visit follows those by potential challengers for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who hosted events in the state last week.

Democrats expended considerable energy and effort rejiggering their presidential primary and caucus schedule, despite the fact that, assuming President Biden runs, he’ll likely have his party’s nomination sewn up long before ballots are cast in Democrats’ new early states: South Carolina and Nevada.  

By contrast, Republicans are likely to have a quite competitive nominating process in which Iowa and New Hampshire will be first again — and, because of that, those states will be critically important in sorting out the winner.   

Questioning the influence of these early states in picking nominees has become commonplace, with the winners in Iowa and in New Hampshire each going on to capture their party’s nomination only about half the time.  

But this analysis misses the tremendous joint power of these two early states.  

The simple fact is, since 1976, when proliferating primaries and caucuses became the chief mechanism for selecting convention delegates, every nominee but two, in both parties, won either Iowa or New Hampshire.   

This first exception, in 1992, resulted from the candidacy of Iowa favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin, rendering the Democratic caucuses moot, while former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas’s victory in neighboring New Hampshire, along with Bill Clinton’s comeback second-place finish, left the contest unresolved.  

President Biden provides the second exception. Tick-tight results in both early states and technical failures in Iowa created uncertainty while the COVID-19 pandemic spread, wreaking havoc with elections. Biden overwhelmingly won the third state on the calendar, and the former vice president went on to seal his victory.  

But those two exceptions remain the only ones in nearly half a century. The influence of the early states is neither magical nor mysterious: Victories in those states move votes elsewhere.  

In 1976, Jimmy Carter garnered 4 percent of the Democratic primary vote in national polls before winning Iowa and New Hampshire. Within three days of that second victory, he jumped 12 points in the national polls.  

The impact for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was even more dramatic. On average, Kerry picked up about 20 points nationally from his Iowa win, and another 13 from New Hampshire.  

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) didn’t pick up many votes after a disputed win in Iowa and a clear victory in New Hampshire, one of his home states. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who led most polls before Iowa and New Hampshire, saw his vote cut almost in half in national surveys after losing both states.   

Barack Obama picked up about 6 points after winning Iowa and losing New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton, while Donald Trump made similar national gains after losing Iowa and then winning New Hampshire.  

George H.W. Bush didn’t call it the “big mo’ ” for nothing; his own support doubled nationally after he narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980, though Reagan went on to garner a huge New Hampshire victory and the nomination.  

Bush’s big mo’ rests firmly on two Vs: visibility and viability, which both attract campaign cash.   

Historically, Iowa and New Hampshire account for about half the press coverage of the entire primary season, with the winners vacuuming up the lion’s share.   

Moreover, the winner’s coverage is mostly positive. That intense burst of positive publicity fuels the rise of candidates, while those who fail to partake of the victor’s spoils rarely catch up.   

Assessments of candidates’ viability matter as well. Most people (though not all) want to support a candidate they believe has some chance of winning. Early victories provide incontrovertible evidence that a candidate can win.   

Losses raise questions about viability — questions reinforced by reporters who ask losers daily when they intend to drop out. And donors, small and large, flood winners with cash as losers’ bank accounts dwindle.  

So, as we peer ahead to 2024, what do polls in Iowa and New Hampshire tell us about the race for the Republican nomination?  

It’s fair to discount this data — plenty of eventual winners were nowhere in the early states at this very early point. But, right now, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) dominate both states. Others barely register. Even popular New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is mired in single digits in his own state.    

As between Trump and DeSantis, the story is confusing and contradictory, though most polls show DeSantis falling recently.  If another Republican wants a chance of wresting the nomination from the two front-runners, they’d better buy a warm coat and move to the early states.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.    

Tags Bush Iowa caucuses Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Mitt Romney New Hampshire primary Newt Gingrich Presidential election Tom Harkin

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