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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 HarrisTrump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally Overnight Defense: US, Russia closer on nuclear treaty extension after Moscow accepts warhead freeze | Khashoggi's fiancee sues Saudi crown prince | Biden nets hundreds more national security endorsements Democrats make gains in Georgia Senate races: poll MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDurbin signals he isn't interested in chairing Judiciary Committee Booker 'outs' Cruz as vegan; Cruz jokingly decries 'scurrilous attack' Why Latinos should oppose Barrett confirmation MORE (D-N.J.) and former Cabinet Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroSanders says Democrats should have given more speaking time to progressives Castro says DNC should have put more Latino speakers on stage from beginning Jill Biden defends husband's cognitive ability from Trump attacks: 'It's ridiculous' 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 make gains in Georgia Senate races: poll 'Democrat-run cities' fuel the economy, keep many red states afloat Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein 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 KlobucharDurbin signals he isn't interested in chairing Judiciary Committee Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing MORE of Minnesota faces the same fate Monday.

New Hampshire has been a bit more parochial. Vermont's Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters MORE and Massachusetts' Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenJustice Department charges Google with illegally maintaining search monopoly Overnight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing 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 ClintonTrump jokingly blames 'Crooked Hillary' after his rally mic stops working The Hill's Campaign Report: Two weeks to the election l Biden leads in new polls as debate looms l Trump pressures DOJ on Hunter Biden Trump remarks put pressure on Barr 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 BidenBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 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 BullockPandemic politics dominate competitive governor's races Judge tosses land management plans after ousting Pendley from role Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big MORE (twice elected governor in the red state of Montana and head of the National Governors Association) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats sense momentum for expanding child tax credit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency MORE (one of the heavyweights in the Senate) but includes self-help author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 Marianne Williamson: Democratic convention 'like binge watching a Marriott commercial' MORE is deeply flawed.

It was unacceptable that the last two debates included billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerDemocrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein 2020 election already most expensive ever TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month 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.