Why (Very White) Iowa and New Hampshire Mean So Much in Politics

Both Democrats and Republicans put the bulk of their primary campaign efforts into states with largely white electorates. Meanwhile, voters of color seem like just an afterthought in the process.

By Shani O. Hilton Dec 15, 2011

Right now the presidential candidate race is all about New Hampshire and Iowa. More specifically, the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses. Conventional wisdom holds that losing in one of these states can damage a candidate severely, while a win all but cements their candidacy.

But the media frenzy around these two states–which aren’t exactly representative of the country’s class and racial diversity–has drawbacks.

"You’re hard pressed to find two whiter states," says Matt Barreto, professor of political science and pollster for Latino Decisions, a polling firm that tracks the political leanings of Latinos.

And the lack of diversity has an effect on who gets initial attention from the media as the electoral process begins.

"The prominence and first-in-nation position of Iowa and New Hampshire do elevate white primary voters over non-white ones, and in both parties," says Thomas Schaller, a professor of political science at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The life of the average Iowan or New Hampshirite doesn’t reflect the reality of the average American. Take a look at New Hampshire’s demographics, and you’ll see a state that’s nearly 94 percent white, with wealthier residents than the many states, far fewer foreign-born residents, and higher levels of educational attainment. Iowa is much the same: 91 percent white, high rates of home ownership, and low rates of poverty.

The short answer for why Iowa and New Hampshire matter: Symbolism. The Iowa caucuses are the first electoral events of the presidential campaign season; the New Hampshire primary is the first primary.

The long answer: The process leading all the way to the general election starts here. In Iowa on Jan. 3, voters will meet in 99 conventions to elect county-level delegates. Those 99 county delegates select district and state delegates, who will eventually select the delegates that attend the national Democratic and Republican conventions—where those delegates confirm the presidential nominee. (Remember the frantic counting of delegates that happened before Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign? The Iowa caucuses are the first step there.)

And it’s worth noting that Barack Obama won the largely white Iowa caucuses in 2008–Schaller calls it "one of great racial ironies of modern American politics"–which was the first sign that he actually was a viable candidate.

New Hampshire—where Obama lost to Clinton a few days after winning Iowa—has legislated that its primary must be the first in the country. (It has a special exception for Iowa, which is a different kind of contest.) Historically, New Hampshire was the earliest primary, but as other states have begun to move their own primaries up, the Granite state’s law has forced it to stay ahead. Over the last fifteen election cycles, the primary has crept up from March to early January. This year, the New Hampshire primary will be held on Jan. 10, keeping the political leanings of New Hampshire’s 1.3 million residents prominent in the minds of the press.

But, Barreto says, "The process is slowly starting to change."

According to Schaller, "Both parties, and especially the Democrats–who receive the lion’s share of the black and Latino vote in general election–have tried to address this inequality by moving Nevada and South Carolina up earlier into the calendar."

New Hampshire is holding on through force of the will of Secretary of State Bill Gardner: When the Nevada caucuses threatened the "first" status of the state, he noted, "It is a possibility that the [New Hampshire] primary could be this year, before the end of this year, if need be."

But moving Nevada up to the beginning of February makes a difference, Barreto says. "To some extent, it’s now possible to think of Iowa and New Hampshire as part of a mix of states," instead of the only two ahead of the pack.

This year, spending on ad buys and candidate appearances in the Iowa and New Hampshire are way down—but debates are way up. Two reasons account for this: Debates are cheap, and voters are still pretty unenthusiastic about their canidates. A recent poll suggests that while 40 percent of GOP primary voters say they wouldn’t vote for any of the trailing candidates, they’re only moderately invested in the top two, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

The survey finds that neither Gingrich nor Romney is drawing much in the way of strong support. Just 29 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Gingrich for the nomination support him strongly; 69 percent support him "only moderately." Similarly, far fewer GOP voters support Romney strongly (33 percent) than support him only moderately (66 percent). Support for both Gingrich and Romney is softer than was support for the leading GOP candidates four years ago.

It’s unclear whether the current weak economy–and the unenthusiastic voters it’s produced–will spell the death of the traditional, outsized importance of Iowa and New Hampshire. But the strides toward improving the process, like bringing more diverse states into the process earlier on, are a sign that the two may start facing some steeper competition for media attention.

And when both Democrats and Republicans are up in 2016, change may come even more swiftly.

Barreto notes, "[Diversity] matters much more more on the Democratic side. If Democrats are only responsive to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, that’s not going to get the job done."