Primary Voters Aren’t Radical

by Jeff Fleischer

(The New Republic, September 1, 2006)

tnrEvery time a Democrat loses a presidential election, he spurs a new round of intra-party finger pointing. This season, two years after another failed attempt, the recriminations finally ended when the party’s leadership took revenge on two of the most hated culprits–the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary–by revamping the primary schedule for 2008. The case against them says that primary voters in these two states are too liberal, too dovish, and too partisan–and they therefore favor candidates who can’t win a bipartisan, nationwide following. Within weeks of John Kerry’s defeat, columnists were making the case, as TNR Editor-at-Large Peter Beinart did in this Washington Post piece, that the seeds of defeat were sown when Iowa’s out-of-the-mainstream voters stated their preferences: “Unless Democrats begin their nominating process in a more representative state, which expresses its preferences in a more representative way, they will continue to weed out their most electable candidates and nominate those who can’t win. Just as they did in 2004.”

So, in an arrangement–unveiled on August 19 by the Democratic National Committee–that seeks to weaken Iowa and New Hampshire’s clout, Nevada’s caucuses will come between them, and South Carolina’s will come shortly thereafter. Iowa gets to keep its first-in-the-nation caucuses, but its impact will supposedly diminish with more elections crammed into the front of the schedule. According to the Democrats’ new plan, voters in more reliably conservative states will counteract the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, producing a more centrist and “electable” nominee.

But, even if moving to the center is key to the Democrats’ salvation (for more on that debate, visit any blog frequented by Democrats), the analysis here is wrong: Iowa and New Hampshire don’t produce liberal partisans who turn off swing voters. In fact, voters in New Hampshire, and especially Iowa, tend to select safe, fairly moderate candidates whom they think stand the best chance of defeating the GOP nominee in November.

First, a little history. After the fiasco of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the party altered its nominating system to shift the power away from the party bosses in “smoke-filled rooms” and toward delegates selected by primary voters. Party leaders already worried that giving more say to decentralized masses of rank-and-file Democrats would produce problematic candidates. But, in Iowa, the eight contested cycles since then produced Edmund Muskie, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Iowa favorite son Tom Harkin, Al Gore, and John Kerry. New Hampshire made the same choice in five of those contests, deviating only with Gary Hart in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Paul Tsongas in 1992 (the latter two were from neighboring Massachusetts).

That’s hardly a bunch of fringe candidates, and, in most cases, the winners defeated more liberal opponents. Muskie was the establishment’s choice for vice president to Hubert Humphrey in 1968, the establishment’s choice to deliver the party’s 1970 midterm address, and the establishment’s candidate in 1972. Carter entered the 1976 primary as an underdog, but more liberal candidates like Mo Udall, Birch Bayh, and Fred Harris split their constituency in both states (Carter’s early successes prompted an “Anybody but Carter” movement by liberal voters in later primaries). As an embattled incumbent in 1980, Carter thumped Ted Kennedy–the face of liberalism to both supporters and critics–in both states. In 1984, former veep Mondale won in Iowa because Hart cast his lot with New Hampshire–spending more days there than any other candidate–to win its primary. Both 1988 and 1992 were essentially regional votes (Gephardt and Paul Simon took first and second in Iowa in 1988 because they were from neighboring Missouri and Illinois; Dukakis and Tsongas dominated New Hampshire from their homes next-door; in 1992, Harkin was Iowa’s own senator), but neither state launched a candidate into the rest of primary season with an insurmountable lead. In 2000, despite a lower approval rating–and a 20-point-higher disapproval rating–Gore held off the equally funded Bill Bradley, who was more progressive on issues from national health care to gay rights. And, in 2004, Kerry (and centrist John Edwards) outpaced the grassroots favorite, Howard Dean.

It’s also worth noting that the two Democratic nominees most often maligned by party centrists–George McGovern and Dukakis–weren’t the products of Iowa or New Hampshire. McGovern placed second in both contests in 1972 (23 percent of the vote in Iowa, 37 in New Hampshire), trailing Muskie by about 10 points each time. The race was Muskie’s to lose, and he did so only after the Republican-manufactured “Canuck letter” and his emotional public defense of his wife sunk the campaign. That left McGovern and George Wallace in the race, and Democrats quite understandably preferred the antiwar candidate to the segregationist one. (By that point, too, being against the war wasn’t so radical: Nixon was in peace talks and the war’s approval rating nationwide had already fallen to 34 percent.) As for Dukakis, he managed only 22 percent in Iowa; he won New Hampshire in part because it bordered his state, but he didn’t truly secure the nomination until he dominated the first-ever Super Tuesday the next month. Ironically, Super Tuesday had been created by nine Southern states specifically to boost the chances of Southern conservatives against candidates like, well, Michael Dukakis.

What’s more, exit polls indicate that, contrary to critics’ complaints, voters in both states clearly care about how candidates play nationally. In 2004, New Hampshire voters ranked the ability to beat Bush as the second-most important quality for a candidate in a CNN exit poll (behind “Stand Up for Beliefs,” which favored Dean). Kerry took 62 percent in the “Can Beat Bush” category. Iowa–where electability was the second-most important factor again–had a similar result, with Kerry seven points ahead of Edwards on who could best beat Bush. In 2000, an entrance poll in Iowa found Gore winning among voters who cared most about strong leadership, experience, and the ability to win in November–all by larger margins than his overall caucuses victory. Going back to 1984, a New York Times/CBS News poll of Iowa caucus voters found that 69 percent of those who backed the victorious Mondale ranked his ability to beat Reagan as one of the top two reasons for their support.

Of course, it’s obvious from these examples that Iowans and Granite Staters–like any number of experts and pundits–can be blatantly wrong with their predictions of electability. But they still seem to value potential winners more than the ideologically pure. Given that we’re talking about two true swing states (both went for Gerald Ford in 1976, both for Bill Clinton twice, and they split in 1988, 2000, and 2004), voters are as likely there as anywhere to have a sense of what plays to the undecideds. Certainly more than voters in South Carolina, which has voted Democratic just once since 1960.

There are plenty of reasons to tweak the primary system: Iowa and New Hampshire are sorely lacking in racial diversity, and their regional candidates can have a nationwide advantage (of course, that problem could occur in any state whose primary comes early). There’s also a good case that two small states shouldn’t wield such influence over the nomination, but giving four small states such influence isn’t much better. If anything, the new calendar will simply decide the nominee even faster by giving candidates less time to adjust to an early result. And, from an ideological perspective, it’s hard to imagine the new system resulting in candidates more “mainstream” than the safe choices produced by the existing schedule. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

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