Iowa and New Hampshire haters should think twice

Iowa and New Hampshire haters should think twice
© Greg Nash

The quadrennial complaint in American presidential politics is reaching a crescendo: The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are unfair relics and need to be replaced.

These two states are unrepresentative of America, critics contend, overwhelmingly white and older and harmful particularly to much more diverse Democrats. The major candidates of color — Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter Clyburn: Biden 'suffered' from not doing 'enough' in early debates MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats' Obama-to-Sanders shift on charter schooling This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter MORE (D-N.J.) and former Cabinet Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroThe Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate How the media fall in and out of love with candidates Key Latino group endorses Sanders ahead of Nevada caucuses MORE — have dropped out of the race. All leading contenders now are white.

They say this gives these two small states a huge advantage over others: “The 2020 cycle should be the last time that Iowa and New Hampshire benefit at the country's expense,” says the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, a terrific columnist with whom I usually agree.

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On this he's wrong.

The first issue is some place has to go first. Immediately rule out any large state where it'd be all about media and money, campaigning tarmac to tarmac — meeting voters would be incidental.

There is real value in retail politics, a premium in New Hampshire and Iowa, in running for an office where insularity is endemic. Candidates ranging from right winger Patrick Buchanan to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Biden, Sanders battle over Cuba, Obama Biden attacks Sanders at debate over Obama primary MORE have been shaped by these town meetings, union halls, diners, civic breakfasts, door-to-door campaigning.

The parties could pick other states to kick it off, say more diverse Mississippi and New Mexico. These states would have their own set of differences.

Further, these New Hampshire and Iowa voters have become deeply engaged and serious about this exercise. It might take others a while.

Now the first are followed by Nevada and South Carolina, which are heavily Latino or African-American on one side and evangelical Christian on the other. Only after these retail exercises do the big wholesale states come in.

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Moreover, with few exceptions, Iowa and New Hampshire, while not always picking winners, have shaped the national dialogue and election, reflecting the realpolitik of the year. I welcomed this for Obama, disliked it for Trump. Both reflected realities.

Iowa has eschewed tilting to regional preferences: Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty got nowhere in the contest next door, and I suspect Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE of Minnesota faces the same fate Monday.

New Hampshire has been a bit more parochial. Vermont's Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE and Massachusetts' Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE will test that again in the Feb. 11 primary.

Did Iowa and New Hampshire, with the paucity of minorities, undermine Harris and Booker, who six months ago I thought were two of the four or five candidates with the greatest potential? The most obvious answer is Obama, whose Presidency was launched in the Iowa caucuses and who, by the way, carried both those states twice in the general elections.

It wasn't easy.

Twelve years ago Obama beat the toughest Democratic field in history: Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday MORE; John Edwards, who'd finished a close second in the Iowa caucus four years before and had been the Democrats' vice presidential candidate; Senators Joe BidenJoe BidenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE and Chris Dodd, and Governor and former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson.

This time Harris ran a dysfunctional campaign; she had a moment after attacking Joe Biden but was unable to capitalize on it.

Booker never even had a moment, despite great potential. I think he might have if he had run as the strongest mainstream progressive younger than Biden, more experienced than Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE, more electable than Sanders or Warren. He should have emphasized more his innovative proposals for "baby bonds," where every American would be given $1,000 at birth with the government kicking in for poorer kids until they are 18.

I don't think Harris or Booker would have cut it in other venues; it was about their campaigns not their race.

One very legitimate complaint from Booker, Harris and others is the debate criteria set by the Democratic National Committee. Any process that eliminates prominent Democrats like Steve BullockSteve BullockStates, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash Democrats redefine center as theirs collapses Democratic governors worried about drawn-out 2020 fight MORE (twice elected governor in the red state of Montana and head of the National Governors Association) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand Bennet Biden proposes 0B housing plan Nevada caucuses open with a few hiccups Overnight Energy: EPA moves to limit financial pressure on 'forever chemical' manufacturers | California sues Trump over water order| Buttigieg expands on climate plan MORE (one of the heavyweights in the Senate) but includes self-help author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson endorses Sanders at Texas rally Democrats: The road to kumbaya The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Pelosi take the gloves off; DNC wants Iowa recanvass MORE is deeply flawed.

It was unacceptable that the last two debates included billionaire Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE but not Booker.

Next time these debates should not be controlled by the political parties.

To be sure, if on Monday Iowa is seen as voting for a candidate that undercuts the ability to defeat Trump in the fall, the caucus' prime status may be threatened.

But these two early voting states have a pretty good track record of choosing diverse candidates, have engaged voters and are swing states in the general election.

Before changing this system, critics need to offer a better one.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.