Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Iowa and New Hampshire Surprises

Larry Sabato has an article out today emphasizing uncertainty in the early states, noting that “From 1976 to 2008, there has been a major surprise every time either in Iowa or New Hampshire.” That’s true, as far as it goes: he’s right that no one expected Pat Robertson to surge to second place in Iowa in 1988 ahead of a sitting Vice President, or John McCain to upset George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000.

The truth is, however, that what those examples reveal isn’t that Iowa and New Hampshire can be volatile (although they are), but that surprises there often don’t matter very much, at least not since the modern system was set firmly in place in the 1980s. After all, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2000 wound up cruising to their nominations, despite the hiccups along the way. In both cases, party leaders had pretty much settled on a winner, and looking back the day-to-day excitement of the primaries just wasn’t where the real action in those cycles was.

On the other hand, in contests in which party actors are unable to reach consensus on a nominee – most notably, in the last two Democratic nomination cycles – then the primaries and caucuses do have an important part to play. In 2004, Howard Dean’s miserable showing in the Iowa caucuses appeared (in my view) to have convinced party actors that Howard Dean’s popularity was hype, not reality, something that many of them were not at all certain of in fall 2003. And in 2008, Iowa had the opposite effect, confirming that Barack Obama would in fact appeal to rank-and-file voters – and setting up, as we all remember, a long contest with party actors and voters split, leaving the long sequence of primaries and caucuses to determine the nominee.

The problem for observers trying to figure out what will happen this time is that the “invisible primary” is, in fact, not very visible; it’s not always easy to figure out whether there is a winner or not. After all, we’re not just talking about a handful of party leaders in Washington; there are hundreds of party actors all around the nation, and it’s not always easy at all to know which are the most important ones or what they really think. The most tangible indications are high-profile endorsements and fundraising. Based on those it appears so far that Mitt Romney has a lead, but not nearly as solid as, say, George W. Bush in 2000. So we’ll see: Romney could add to that lead in the next few weeks, making Iowa and New Hampshire much less important, or party actors could stay on the fence, still hoping that they can support someone else. If that’s the case, the early states could indeed by critical.

But most Iowa and New Hampshire surprises have nothing to do with who eventually wins the nomination. They're great for political junkies (myself definitely included), and they're certain to be pounced on by the press, which has a strong interest in portraying nomination battles as close fights for as long as it can. They can  change the structure of the losers, keeping a Huckabee alive longer than otherwise would have been the case, or killing off a Glenn or Graham or Connally earlier than might have been. One Iowa surprise, George H.W. Bush's upset of Ronald Reagan in 1980, even eventually produced a president, by way of a VP selection. But while it's nice to be reminded that we could get something wildly unexpected out of an early state in January (where's that Roy Moore campaign, anyway?), it's more important to remember that those surprises usually don't mean very much.


  1. JB: Dean lost the invisible primary, but only at the last minute, tanking in late December when reporters were paying less attention while on holiday, and thus the signs of elite endorsements and polling collapse were harder to pick up.


    (I'm not so much challenging your Forum piece as wondering what you make of this)

  2. In both cases, party leaders had pretty much settled on a winner, and looking back the day-to-day excitement of the primaries just wasn’t where the real action in those cycles was.

    Hmmmmm, so "party leaders" settle on winners, and super delegates are obviously "party leaders", but super delegates have no effect on what primary voters want, as the primaries are driven by primary voters, who actually settle on winners.


    These ideas are simply irreconcilable.

    Some day, you are going to have to accept that super delegates are illegitimate, and skew the process. You seem to want to, when you acknowledge that they chose "winners", but then you revert to claiming that they don't. Which is it?

  3. Jonathan, I wonder if your two arguments, GHWBush/GWBush on the one hand and Dean/Obama on the other reflect the attitudes toward governing more then anything; with Republicans being more comfortable with top-down selections, Democrats by bottom-up?

    That seems a better explanation for the relative unimportance of the early primaries for Republicans, and greater importance for Democrats.

  4. From one Anon to another...
    Stop blathering about super delegates. Go back and find one of the 300 posts where JB clarifies who he means by "party leaders" and stop leaving "obviously" obtuse comments.

    Thank you,

  5. Matt,

    My sense of it is that Dean spooked a lot of party actors, who didn't know what to make of all that weird intertubes stuff. I agree with you that his polling went south in December, but had he won in Iowa I think he would have had a reasonable chance going forward. I think he failed in Iowa because (1) he ultimately wasn't a very good candidate, and (2) in fact, the internet component of it wasn't actually anything game-changing.

    Basically, I think Kerry beat him in the invisible primary, but not decisively, and there was enough "maybe this is different" associated with Dean that a whole lot of party people who normally would have wanted to shut things down were willing to wait -- but that ended as soon as the returns came in, and thus before the scream.

  6. zic,

    I don't know...the Dems had pretty good coordination in 1984, 1992, and 2000; the GOP didn't in 2008, and perhaps 1996. I'm open to the argument, but I'm hesitant to assume party differences.

  7. Oh gosh, why not...


    The supers are all party actors of some sort, and many are party leaders, and as such they are important to the nomination. But they are important because of their status w/in the party, not because they are delegates.

  8. @JB
    I generally agree that there is a good chance in the next month for the race to wrap up and the GOP party actors to line up behind Romney, and while Iowa might go haywire it would go to Romney anyway. If that does happen are there any telltale signs we could look for to see if this is happening other than the obvious of lots of endorsements and people dropping out and getting behind Romney?

    Seeing that this kinda ties into the winnowing question you posed earlier in the week is there any literature as to winnowed GOP candidates fundraising in the last 4 competitive primary cycles for the GOP since 96’? That is I suspect that a tool by the winnowers in the party is cutting targeted winnowees (I need to come up with better terms) funds off. That is getting fundraisers and bundlers without personal loyalty to a targeted winnowee to refuse to donate or raise money (Pawlenty supposedly raised most of his money from his MN connections from being governor and not much else.) If not I suspect this would be a start for good research, that is trying to prove that the winnowed can’t raise money from national conservative or GOP networks only ones they have personal connections to. I suspect on the DEM side it might be different.

  9. The supers are all party actors of some sort, and many are party leaders, and as such they are important to the nomination. But they are important because of their status w/in the party, not because they are delegates.

    You're not addressing the contradictions inherent in your multiple and morphing views.

    The super delegates, you claim, follow the primary voters, thus making this super delegate process legitimate, as it has not effect on primary voter intent, and in fact reinforces primary voter intent.

    However, you also claim that the "invisible primary" chooses candidates, and that this process is pretty much a lock to pick the candidate, meaning that there's really no chance that anybody including the super delegates are following the primary voters, because the candidates have been long before selected.

    These positions are irreconcilable. You hold both. I don't have to go back and read 300 posts, I have sufficient reading to understand this inherent contradiction.

    Have you an explanation for it?

  10. OK, I've about had it. Anon, Professor Bernstein is not a witness in court, and you are not a prosecutor. This blog is a public service; it's something the rest of us who comment here appreciate, because he is giving us, pro bono, the benefit of expert insights from political science, a field that bears importantly on matters we care about but in which most of don't have Ph.D.'s and don't have time to read as widely as a professor does. Also, we comment because we like talking to each other, which was frankly more fun before you got involved. I'm a contentious person myself, so I appreciate a little provocation here and there, but come on. Drop the Grand Inquisitor act and try to get into the spirit of the discussion.

    I think what's happened on this superdelegates question is that you've left the rest of us baffled. What problem have we ever seen the existence of superdelegates actually cause? What nomination have they thrown away from the people's choice?* I do not see a contradiction in JB's last answer to you; obviously party leaders are influential in a political party, and of course there is always a chance they'll wield their influence for self-interested reasons, not for the good of the party or the public. That will be true as long as there are political parties. But fixating on their particular role as superdelegates, when they have never acted as a body to deny a nomination to the apparent rightful nominee, instead of focusing on their role as party actors generally, especially in the early stages when their influence is greatest, really seems misplaced.

    (*Apologies to the rest of you for asking further questions instead of letting this thread die a natural death. Not to worry, I will stay here and debate this with Anon myself, if he likes, while you all move on to topics of actual importance.)

  11. Dude, I didn't bother reading your post, after the first sentence. It's non value added.

    Again to Mr. Bernstein. You have posited diametrically opposed positions: incongruent, conflicting and irreconcilable.

    Have you an explanation for this?


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