The Primary Concern
by David Trumbull
Well, the Iowa caucuses are behind us and the New Hampshire primary election was last Tuesday.
My friend Jesse L. asked on Facebook, “Why do we let two very white, conservative states, Iowa and New Hampshire, to pick our presidential candidates? This seems wholly unfair and antiquated in a country as large and diverse as ours.” I expect he’s not the only one asking that.
The short answer is that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party each want to nominate someone who can win in November and each has found that the current system yields a nominee who can win. Even in elections such as the re-election of Reagan, the re-election of Clinton, and the re-election of Obama, when the incumbent President was popular and the economy was good, the losing party nominated someone who, in another year might have won. So we keep the current system because it works.
But, back to Jesse’s question, Why?
I don’t know enough about Iowa to address that State’s role in choosing presidential nominees. I do know New Hampshire. I even campaigned there in the 1992 primary for President Bush, who was challenged by Pat Buchanan for the Republican nomination.
1. Is New Hampshire too conservative to have such an important early role in choosing the nominees? No. New Hampshire is not conservative. Nor is it liberal. It is neither Republican or Democrat. New Hampshire is a swing state. In 17 presidential elections since WWII, the winner in New Hampshire was the national winner 13 times. Of the times when New Hampshire did not follow the national trend, three were extremely close elections, some of the closest in American history, 1948 (remember the “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper headline, 1960 (nationally is was 49.7% Kennedy and 49.6% Nixon), and 2004 (Bush's margin of victory in the popular vote was the smallest ever for a reelected incumbent president). New Hampshire went against the national trend one other time, that was in 1976 when she joined with Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, “Yankee” States, in rejecting Southerner Jimmy Carter. New Hampshire is average.
2. Is New Hampshire too White to have such an important early role in choosing the nominees? No. New Hampshire is White. But so is the voting population. If I am managing the campaign of a presidential candidate of either party, New Hampshire voters are a good proxy for the voting population as a whole. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 70% of eligible voters are White and 73% of voters are White, meaning Whites have a higher than average tendency to vote. Blacks are 12% of the eligible voters and 12% of actual voters. Hispanics are 11% of eligible voters, but only 7% of actual voters. In other words, not only are Hispanics a small percentage of eligible voters, the also are less likely to vote. Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics account for 92% of all voters. Whites account for almost three-quarters of the voters. So while the American voting population is diverse, it is not as diverse as Jesse’s Los Angeles neighborhood. If you take Los Angeles, Boston, and New Hampshire and ask, Which is the better predictor of a presidential election? the answer is clearly New Hampshire.
The answer to Jesse’s question is that the parties’ primary concern is not to nominate someone who represents the diversity of America. Their primary concern is to nominate someone who can win. Winning the presidency is about winning undecided White voters. Blacks are 12% of the vote and they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic nominee, so it doesn’t matter who either party nominates, the Black vote is not, in any significant numbers, in question. The media makes much of the Hispanic vote, but the political reality that a campaign manager deals with dictates that the Hispanic vote, outside of Florida, is irrelevant. There is the rare Republican like George Bush who got about 40% of the Hispanic vote. More typically there is something in the range of 30% of the Hispanic vote that is not already locked into the Democratic Party. That means that both parties have a chance at persuading about a third of the Hispanic vote, but that’s only one-third of 7% of the total vote, that’s under 2.5% of the vote. Now that 2.5% could make the difference in a close election, that is it could in the popular vote. But not in the electoral college where, other than Florida, the Hispanic population is largely in states such as California, which will go Democratic no matter how much Republicans court the Hispanic vote, and Texas which will go Republican no matter how much Democrats court the Hispanic vote.
Each party has “safe” states that its presidential nominee will carry, but they are not enough to win. They have to appeal to undecided voters in swing states, and the math tells us that the overwhelming majority of those undecided voter are White.