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New Hampshire parochialism, not whiteness, bedevils Democrats

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Now that Sen. Kamala Harris has left the race, the knives are out for the Iowa and New Hampshire early contests, with even mainstream analysts quick to blame the demise of her campaign on the whiteness of the two earliest contests. Of course, the white voters of those two states have not had the chance to vote for someone else, but why allow the facts to get in the way of your personal political agenda?

There’s no question New Hampshire is very white, but demography is not the obstacle to Democratic presidential hopes that they think. Their problem is that New Hampshire always votes for candidates from neighboring states and those states are far out of step with the rest of the country. If the Democrats want to win, they need to ignore New Hampshire’s parochialism.

Holding the first presidential primary, New Hampshire has held a disproportionate role in the party nominating process for decades. In 1952 a victory by Dwight Eisenhower gave the future president a big boost, while President Truman’s loss to Estes Kefauver was a mortal blow to Truman and spurred his decision not to run for re-election.

Since 1972, every major party nominee has finished first or second in the New Hampshire primary. The Iowa caucuses have a spottier record. In years where an incumbent president is not on the ballot (just the competitive nominating contests), the eventual Democratic nominee finished first or second six of nine times (and five of seven times for Republicans).

For the Democrats, New Hampshire doesn’t have a good track record of picking new presidents. Since 1968, only twice has the winner of a contested New Hampshire Democratic primary been elected president, while Republican winners have become president four times.

Why are New Hampshire Democrats so bad at picking winners? Because they keep voting for their neighbors. 

In every Democratic primary since 1960, every time a candidate from an adjacent state was on the ballot, that candidate won (except for Ted Kennedy’s challenge to incumbent President Jimmy Carter). Democrats from Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont have swept the field, with Massachusetts being the big winner. Half of the Democratic winners since 1988 have been from the Bay State (again, excluding incumbent presidents).

New Hampshire parochialism would not be such a problem if its neighboring states — in particular Massachusetts — were in any way representative of the country at large. But they are not.

Massachusetts is about as Democratic and liberal as you can get. Since 1960 Massachusetts has been a top 10 state for the Democrats in percentage of presidential vote, with the sole exception of 1980. The state has been No. 1 three times (median: No. 3). The state has not elected a GOP House member since 1994 or a senator in a regularly scheduled election since 1972 (Scott Brown won a special election in January 2010). Granted, Massachusetts has elected a surprising raft of Republican governors, but a state/federal dichotomy is rather common around the country — and has no relation to federal races.

Vermont (Howard Dean in 2004, Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016) and Maine (Edmund Muskie in 1972) are the other neighboring states that have produced candidates for the Democratic primary. Muskie flamed out early in the process. Dean lost to a Massachusetts candidate (Sen. John Kerry) and Sanders beat Clinton.

Historically, Vermont was generally Republican-voting until the 1990s. Starting in 1992, the state has nearly matched Massachusetts in its liberal voting patterns. In the past four presidential elections, Vermont was the No. 2 state for the Democrats twice, third once and sixth in the past election.

The bottom line is that, at the federal level, the Republican Party simply does not exist in Massachusetts or Vermont. Democratic candidates need only appeal to an increasingly leftist party and its noisy activists.

In contrast, while Iowa is also parochial in its voting, its neighbors are much more competitive from a partisan standpoint. Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin have had a mix of Republican and Democratic senators and House members. Missouri and Wisconsin are swing states and Minnesota is competitive. Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota are more partisan, but none reflexively inhabit the top 10 presidential vote percentages like Massachusetts and Vermont.

Since 1972, neighboring or native politicians have won four out of five times in the Iowa Democratic caucus.  Walter Mondale of Minnesota (1984), Richard Gephardt of Missouri (1988), home state Sen. Tom Harkin (1992) and Barack Obama of Illinois (2008) all won in Iowa, with Mondale and Obama gaining the nomination. The only time a neighboring politician lost was in 1972, when George McGovern of South Dakota lost to Muskie. On the Republican side, neighbors get zero credit. Candidates from adjacent states have never won the Iowa GOP caucus.

Amazingly, given the horde of Democratic candidates, Iowa has no natives or neighbors from which to choose. The caucus is, theoretically, wide open. But caucuses by their nature favor activists. For both the Democratic and Republican parties, caucuses have opted for the more ideological candidates. Who else would tromp out to the local high school gym in the middle of winter to be harangued about politics for hours?

The Democrats are stuck with a one-two punch of contests that are weighted toward the most liberal extremes of their party. Since the 1972 Muskie implosion, only once have the Democrats nominated a candidate who failed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. And that one time was when Iowa native Harkin won his home caucus in 1992. The 2020 primary contest is set up to push the Democrats to the left — much to the glee of the Trump campaign.

The Democrats have a serious structural problem. The first primary provides an enormous advantage to the candidates from the most liberal states in the country — candidates who have never had to face serious general election opposition. The state currently better situated to select a general election winner is a caucus state — also to the advantage of the more extreme activist wing of the party.

The smartest move for the Democratic Party is to flip the selection process: make Iowa a primary and New Hampshire a caucus. But doing so is predicated on the Democrats’ willingness to help candidates with a more broad electoral appeal — in other words, wanting to win.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Democratic Party presidential primaries Iowa Iowa caucuses Jimmy Carter John Kerry New Hampshire New Hampshire primary race in politics Tom Harkin

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