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 HarrisLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday If only woke protesters knew how close they were to meaningful police reform MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday House to pass sweeping police reform legislation Police reform in limbo after Senate setback MORE (D-N.J.) and former Cabinet Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' Biden still has a Hispanic voter problem, but does it matter? New York legislature votes to release disciplinary records for officers 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 ObamaHow Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden Biden taps Obama alums for high-level campaign positions: report Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump 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 KlobucharThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources MORE of Minnesota faces the same fate Monday.

New Hampshire has been a bit more parochial. Vermont's Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary Progressive groups urge Biden to tap Warren as running mate Young Turks host says Elizabeth Warren should be Biden's VP pick MORE and Massachusetts' Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHouse Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP 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 ClintonRepublican Nicole Malliotakis wins New York primary to challenge Max Rose Trump's evangelical approval dips, but remains high How Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden 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 campaign raised M more than Trump in the month of June RNC, Trump campaign raised 1M in June Michigan shuts down most indoor bar service in bid to prevent virus resurgence 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 ButtigiegDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems, GOP dig in on police reform ahead of House vote 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 BullockLincoln Project releases new pro-Biden ad in swing states The Hill's Campaign Report: Progressives feel momentum after primary night Lincoln Project backs Bullock in Montana Senate race MORE (twice elected governor in the red state of Montana and head of the National Governors Association) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHouse Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 'The Senate could certainly use a pastor': Georgia Democrat seeks to seize 'moral moment' Some realistic solutions for income inequality MORE (one of the heavyweights in the Senate) but includes self-help author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson touts endorsements for progressive congressional candidates The Hill's 12:30 Report: Warren becomes latest 2020 rival to back Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden looks to stretch lead in Tuesday contests MORE is deeply flawed.

It was unacceptable that the last two debates included billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Jacksonville mandates face coverings as GOP convention approaches Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary 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.