It’s difficult to know for sure what came first: the Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly over the early stages of the presidential nominating process, or the first attacks on the Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly as irrational, unfair, unrepresentative, etc., etc. New Hampshire, of course, had an occasionally important primary back when primaries (or any other sort of quasi-democratic means of selecting National Convention delegates) were the exception rather than the rule. And Iowa only emerged as a factor when the abrupt switch to near-universal caucuses and primaries in the early 1970s revolutionized the process and made the nominating “calendar” all-important.
The tenacious cleverness of Iowa and New Hampshire pols from both parties in linking arms to entrench their privileged position has been a thing of wonder. The occasional attempts to “reform” the nominating process have inevitably concluded with a surrender to the duopoly and a subsequent focus on discouraging other states from challenging it by moving into the sacred calendar ground. Perhaps the shrewdest move in defending their turf was the acceptance of two more-diverse states—South Carolina and Nevada—as receiving a smaller slice of privilege. But in the end what’s mattered most has been the credible threat to punish any would-be president who doesn’t publicly call the current set-up the best of all possible nominating processes.
In fact, by the time a presidential cycle rolls around virtually all candidates will have already invested significant time, talent and money in Iowa and New Hampshire—not just in proto-campaign operations, but in meeting myriad demands for help in purely state and local fundraising and campaign operations. It’s just part of the price of admission. Moreover, smart young pols from around the country compete for the most menial jobs in the duopoly states in order to (as the saying goes) “punch a ticket for the presidential.” If you are, say, a state legislative candidate in a competitive district in Iowa in a midterm election, the odds are good you’ll enjoy access to some high-life campaign talent and the best political tools money can buy. So it’s all a sort of perpetual motion machine.
This year—and for that matter, in 2016 as well—there’s plenty to do in the duopoly states, what with competitive Senate and House and state legislative races. That’s the subject of my latest TPM Cafe column, which will probably generate at least a few spasms of rage from those who think the Duopoly is an outrage.
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