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.
But by the last two months of 2011, Mr. Gingrich had climbed back into contention via the debate stage, where he displayed verbal skill and familiarity with policy. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has also been a consistently strong debater, reinforcing his position in the top tier. He did make that $10,000 bet with Perry, which was blasted as a gaffe because it made the wealthy former businessman look out of touch. But he, like Gingrich, has shown himself to be fluent on the issues and a credible potential debater against President Obama.
In short, the 2011 primary season has been all about fired-up conservatives looking for an alternative to the moderate Mr. Romney. And so there's been an evolving narrative as, one by one, the alternatives have risen and fallen.
"This has been a season to find the un-Romney, and so our memory will be of more debates because there was more novelty in the focus of the debates," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "It's not the same debate being rerun over and over."
No wonder, she says, debate viewership has been way up over four years ago (7.6 million viewers on Dec. 10 alone – a boffo rating, especially for a Saturday night). The lingering economic downturn has made voters particularly anxious about who will be the next president, and interest is high.
In addition, Ms. Jamieson says, there have been lots of televised candidate interviews, which offer additional insights into each contender's views and personality. She welcomes the access that candidates have provided the national audience, rather than sequestering themselves in the living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the Granite State, GOP partisans rue the threat to their state's special role.
"On-the-ground retail campaigning, it just doesn't pay," says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "That's a disappointing realization. The idea of Jimmy Carter building support one by one is not nearly as effective as having a good debate moment that goes viral on YouTube."
Indeed, the multiplier effect of social media is more important than ever. Instead of the traditional media deciding what the key debate moments are and pushing an analysis that may or may not resonate with voters, debates are in effect being crowd-sourced in real time. Twitter and other platforms light up with trending topics that come straight from the candidates' and moderators' mouths.
Clearly, the top candidates have figured all this out, as they have given less time to the early states than they did four years ago. Gingrich spent little time in Iowa and New Hampshire until recently but could well be a top-three finisher in both states (though his inability to qualify for the Virginia primary ballot on March 6 has raised serious questions about his overall viability). Romney has spent far less time in Iowa – just 12 days this cycle, as of Dec. 25 – than he did four years ago but may end up winning the caucuses.
Representative Paul has posted middling numbers for visits to both Iowa (39 days as of Dec. 25) and New Hampshire (35 days), yet he has an excellent chance of winning Iowa and placing in the top three in New Hampshire. In contrast, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate – 97 days, including visits to all 99 counties – but is mired in single digits. (All the visit tallies come from the website P2012.org.) Mr. Santorum's Dec. 20 endorsement by Iowa evangelical activist Bob Vander Plaats could give him a little mojo in a state where religious conservatives are a force in the GOP, but endorsements are hardly game changers.
The GOP’s new rule awarding delegates proportionally based on the vote, rather than winner-take-all, in most contests before April also makes the early contests less important than in the past.
Still, Iowa and New Hampshire remain important. They will winnow the field, allowing those still standing to consolidate support. The winners will also matter, but perhaps not in a way that pleases the party.
If Paul wins Iowa, that will feed the narrative that the Hawkeye State is becoming increasingly irrelevant in selecting the Republican nominee. Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses with 34 percent but did not have the national appeal or fundraising skill to win the nomination.
Paul would face an even more biting analysis. Because of the large, unsettled field, he can squeak through to victory in Iowa with a plurality in the 20s –hardly a strong send-off. But a win is a win, and Iowa Republicans are already expressing concern that a Paul victory will hurt Iowa's image.
Paul's isolationist foreign policy alone is enough to scare off much of the Republican mainstream, and thus he doesn't have much room to grow his numbers nationally. But he could opt to run as a third-party candidate in November, which could harm the eventual Republican nominee – so the Republican powers-that-be will have to tread carefully.
New Hampshire should be strong for Romney, and he is still expected to win there. The question is by how much. If he wins by single digits, that could raise a red flag over his ability to grow support in states that are less friendly to his moderate Northeastern sensibility.
Regardless, Romney is one of the few Republican candidates with the organization and money to survive a long nomination battle, if it comes to that.