In GOP race, Iowa and New Hampshire aren't what they used to be
Iowa still goes first in the presidential nominating contests, followed by New Hampshire. But voters there have lost their outsized influence in personally sizing up nominees, as televised debates and social media take precedence.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
What's fading is not their place in the celestial order as hosts of the first nominating contests, but rather their outsize role in personally sizing up Republican nominees.
An obscure Democratic governor named Jimmy Carter set the paradigm in 1975, when he essentially took up residence in Iowa and shook countless hands on his way to becoming the top named vote-getter in the 1976 caucuses. The Georgia governor's upset victory set him on a path to the presidency.
When Iowa Republicans caucus on Jan. 3, chances are the voters will know more about the candidates from nationally televised debates and interviews than from personal interaction. Ditto the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10.
"If the protester is Time's person of the year, then the debate is the primaries' theme of the year," says Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
Contrary to popular belief, there have not been more Republican debates than there were four years ago. In 2007, GOP contenders took part in 15 debates; this year, they had 13. But the 2011 debates have been more memorable, in part because the field has been so fluid. Over time, Iowa has had a succession of six front-runners. And when a new one rises up – say, Texas Gov. Rick Perry – he or she becomes the focus of attention in debates, both by the other candidates and the moderators.
That means more questions and attacks, which increase the possibility of a stumble. Governor Perry's stunning brain freeze in the Nov. 9 debate, where he could not remember the third government agency he would close, sealed his fate as yesterday's news.
Herman Cain benefited from the debates, as they gave him a platform to show off his charisma and "9-9-9"-infused sound bites. When allegations of sexual impropriety emerged, viewers tuned in to the debates to see what he would say.
Debates have also been central to a candidate's revival. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared mortally wounded in June when most of his staff resigned over his unorthodox campaign strategy. He was ridiculed for taking a Mediterranean cruise, rather than the Holiday Inn circuit around Iowa. And he appeared woefully out of touch in tough economic times when he defended his $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany's.