NH Will Weed Out Presidential Candidates

New Hampshire will help decide which candidates have a sporting chance of being president
Illustration by Peter Noonan

There is something of a rivalry between Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that kick off the presidential primary season. The two states receive loads of attention from presidential candidates and the national press corps. But former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu puts it this way: Iowa picks corn, and New Hampshire picks presidents.

The phrase is both cute and totally wrong. Since the two states began kicking off the process in 1972, only once have these two states picked a president: Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Technically, the winner of the Iowa Caucuses that year was “uncommitted.”)

Instead of picking presidents, what these states really do is pick out who definitely should not be president. These states take the time to weed out candidates for all kinds of reasons. But the bottom line is that a number of candidates may run around these states as candidates, but very few find themselves still a candidate after the New Hampshire Primary. Political scientists say the role of the two states is to “winnow out” the field to two or three candidates and then let the rest of the country decide.

Which brings us to the historic job at hand next year. With roughly 20 Republican candidates for president, winnowing down the field to two or three candidates is going to be a heck of a job. In fact, no field in the history of presidential politics has ever been this large.

Given how the Iowa Caucuses work, candidates who are either more liberal among Democratic candidates or more conservative among Republican candidates tend to do better. In New Hampshire, where independent voters are allowed to vote, the candidates that do well are those who generally are more moderate.

This process of picking a party base candidate and a more electable candidate tends to work to give the country options. But there is an added twist this year. Not only will these states find it hard to winnow so many candidates down to a few, new US Supreme Court rulings are making it likely the process won’t winnow down early.

The rulings on campaign finance reform have totally changed the game. Candidates typically only drop out when they run out of money. Before, this meant that a candidate had to do well in Iowa or New Hampshire. If they weren’t seen as a good investment to donors, they’d go broke and drop out. Now a candidate just needs one really rich person backing them. They could finish eighth in Iowa and New Hampshire, and continue running in other states as long as someone is still cutting a check via a Super PAC to air television ads. All that candidate would need to worry about is gas, hotel rooms and rental space for rallies.

So this year, while Iowa and New Hampshire might tell a record number of candidates that they are finished, they may not actually be. Iowa may still pick corn, but it is unclear if New Hampshire will pick the presidential prospects or just offer an unbinding suggestion on what should happen. 

Categories: Politics