As of this writing, at least 19 states — including many of the biggest, such as California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Texas — have already moved, or are actively considering moving, their presidential primaries forward to Feb. 5, 2008, for the express purpose of stealing some of the thunder from Iowa and New Hampshire's privileged positions as the first two and most important states in the nomination of the U.S. president.
Remember where you heard it first: For historic, economic, human and emotional reasons, in 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire will be more, rather than less, influential in determining who the Democratic and Republican nominees will be.
This, of course, is dismissed by wise men who assume that simultaneous primary elections in all those big states will mean that only candidates with bulging campaign treasuries (such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney) will be able to compete by buying expensive TV time in pricey markets like New York and Los Angeles. All the underfinanced underdogs unable to compete in this table-stakes showdown will be forced to withdraw. Not for the first time is the conventional wisdom wrong.
First, the historical: The Iowa caucuses, the first presidential contest, dramatically winnow the candidate field. There are a maximum of "three tickets" out of Iowa, which means that since 1972 no candidate has won his party's presidential nomination who did not finish in the top three in a contested Iowa caucus. And in only one election year, 1988 — when Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis both finished third — did an eventual presidential nominee not finish either first or second in Iowa.
New Hampshire carries even more historical clout. From the Granite State primary, there are just "two tickets." In fact, from 1952 through 1988, no U.S. president was elected who did not first win the New Hampshire primary. The only two exceptions in the last 56 years were Bill Clinton, who in 1992 finished second to Paul Tsongas, and George W. Bush, who in 2000 was beaten by John McCain.
Some of the impact and influence of the results of these two states is a personal and emotional reaction on the part of the nation's voters. After a year or more of speeches, fund raising, debates and commercials, finally real live voters have made a serious decision.
Another factor is that the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire take their responsibilities solemnly. They personally see, meet and confront the candidates. Only here, voters elsewhere and the press understand, are candidates required to answer questions directly on the record from ordinary voters — such as firefighters, nurses or teachers — citizens whose health insurance fails to cover a sick child or whose job is being moved overseas to a low-wage country with no worker protection. After Iowa and New Hampshire, the surviving candidates basically raise money and land on airport tarmacs, where their campaigns schedule press availabilities for local TV stations and where voters, seen but not heard, are used as a visual prop for the evening news.
So it will make no difference next year if your candidate has already reserved more TV time than anybody else in San Diego or Philadelphia if he or she has finished "out of the money" in Iowa and New Hampshire. Having been through this marathon in 2004, John Edwards, more than any candidate in either party, appears to understand that the decisive and determining precincts are in Nashua, Concord, Dubuque and Ottumwa.
One overlooked reason why Iowa and New Hampshire will rule next year can be found in the economics of the news business. Almost all major news organizations will have fewer personnel, fewer resources and smaller budgets in 2008 than they had in 2004. Layoffs of newsroom personnel have become the norm. Prices of newspaper stocks fell 11 percent in 2006, following a 20 percent drop in 2005.
According to the reliable Project for Excellence in Journalism, Newsweek had half the editorial staff in 2006 it had in 1983, and throughout the industry newsroom staff was down 10 percent from 2000 to 2006.This means that news organizations will not have the capacity to cover multi-candidate primaries simultaneously in the nation's biggest states. With finite resource, the betting here is that editors will deploy their people to cover even more intensely the early, manageable contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So get ready, because once again in 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire will be Big Casino!
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.