Here’s a prediction: The results of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary will tell us a great deal about the fight for the GOP nomination — and almost nothing about the battle for the Democratic nomination or anything else.
In key ways, Iowa and New Hampshire look a lot like the national Republican Party. Iowa is 92 percent white and New Hampshire is 94 percent white, making them two of the whitest states in a nation that is now merely 62 percent white. The Republican Party is only slightly more diverse racially than these two states at 89 percent white. Iowa and New Hampshire are also home to just about every major GOP constituency: evangelical Christians, social conservatives, libertarians and tea party adherents as well as mainstream establishment Republicans.
The two states’ results combined will, then, provide crucial hints as to how the primaries will unfold. If, for instance, Ted Cruz wins evangelicals in Iowa, we can expect him to win evangelicals across the Southern states. If Marco Rubio wins self-identified moderates in New Hampshire, we can expect him to do the same across New England. Likewise, if Donald Trump’s support in Iowa and New Hampshire vanishes on election day — because it’s one thing to tell a pollster you want to make America great again, and another to cast a ballot for a [media] star — we can expect his support to vanish elsewhere. On the other hand, if Trump fans show up en masse at Iowa’s caucuses, they’ll probably show up everywhere else.
What Iowa and New Hampshire will not do is provide any insight into which, if any, of the potential GOP nominees can help the party win the general election by expanding its support beyond its nearly all white base — a key goal for the GOP since the party’s autopsy report on its 2012 defeat.
On the Democratic side, pundits are once again talking up Bernie Sanders’ strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, as if victories in those two states will derail Hillary Clinton’s campaign and launch the insurgent past her on his way to the nomination. That’s a fantasy.
It’s not at all surprising that Sanders is popular in these early voting states. Iowa is unusually liberal relative to the rest of the Democratic Party. A recent Des Moines Register poll found that 43 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers identify as socialists and 38 percent as capitalists. Only Vermont, which sent the self-avowed Democratic Socialist Sanders to the U.S. Senate in the first place, could rival those numbers. Speaking of Vermont, Sanders’ residency there gives him an advantage in New Hampshire, which has always been kind to politicians from neighboring states.
But success in Iowa and New Hampshire for a Democrat doesn’t foretell success elsewhere. Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire or the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is racially diverse: nonwhites make up 44 percent of the party. Entire populations that helped Democrats win five of the last six general election popular votes are barely blips in either state.
If Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, that tells us he can win unusually liberal whites and whites from a neighboring state — that’s it. And if Iowa is close between Sanders and Clinton, all that really tells us is that it’s likely to be close with unusually liberal whites in other states.
It’s true that Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in Iowa turned the primary tides in his favor; the fact that white progressives there supported Obama made progressives elsewhere believe that maybe, just maybe, Americans were ready to elect a black president. But Obama beat Clinton only because he won such a large share of nonwhite Democratic voters: roughly 80 percent. Clinton ultimately did better than Obama among whites.
For now, Clinton is leading Sanders among nonwhites by 40 to 50 percentage points. It’s not even close and it isn’t because Sanders isn’t trying. Clinton has real support with nonwhite Democrats that perhaps only a historic candidacy like Obama’s could take away from her. To believe an Iowa win will do for Sanders what it did for Obama, you have to believe nonwhites in South Carolina and the remaining states will be as excited about Sanders as they were about Obama. Does anyone sincerely believe that will happen?
If the early voting states aren’t crystal balls for the Democratic primary, they’re even less informative for what might happen in a general election. Democrats realize that after decades of muckraking from Republicans, Clinton is still competitive with or ahead of the potential GOP nominees. Even wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire won’t tell us how Sanders will stand up to the withering attacks that will be sure to come from the GOP if he becomes the nominee.
The pundits are right that Iowa and New Hampshire matter — but only for the Republican nomination. For the Democratic nomination and for the general this year, they’re insignificant.
Joe Trippi is a Democratic strategist and media consultant who ran Howard Dean’s campaign for president and was a media advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010.