Is it possible that one or both of the major party presidential nominations could be, for all practical purposes, decided after just two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have voted? This may sound crazy to the casual observer of American politics, but the answer is yes. But how can that be, with Iowa and New Hampshire being such small states and accounting for only a miniscule portion of the national delegate count in either party? The catalyst is here not the size of the states or their raw numbers of delegates, of course, but the momentum those states can provide.
If one of the “Big Three” Democrats (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards) or one of the “Big Four” Republicans (Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain) were to win his or her party’s Iowa Caucuses and its New Hampshire Primary, this scenario could easily be played out. With so many actual and potential resources in hand, any of those candidates would own such an overwhelming advantage after having won both of those states that their rivals would practically be on life support at that point. And with the front-end-loaded primary schedule as it is now, they would have little or no chance to recover.
But what if one of the second or third tier candidates happened to win both Iowa and New Hampshire? In this case, the nomination battle would still be wide open as any of the Big Three or Big Four would have enough resources to overcome his advantage. However, if the person winning Iowa and New Hampshire were to continue running the table through Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida, the race could still be over before Super Tuesday (February 5th), as even the candidates with seemingly endless resources would likely be mortally wounded by that point.
For a prime example of how those early states can provide such powerful momentum in the nominating process, one need not look any further than the 2004 Democratic presidential nominating season. In December of 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean had become the frontrunner and prohibitive favorite to capture the nomination. He had raised, by far, the most of money of any Democratic candidate, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. In fact, Kerry’s campaign was in such dire need of money that he and his wife decided to loan it $6 million from their personal fortune. In addition, his poll numbers were beginning to crater in New Hampshire. In an effort to focus his limited resources, he pulled most of his staff out of New Hampshire and brought them to Iowa, where he was only doing somewhat better. He was staking his entire campaign on a good performance in Iowa. As was the case just about everywhere at the time, Dean was enjoying a sizable lead in the polls there as well.
In January of 2004, Kerry’s gamble paid off as he scored a surprising victory in the Iowa Caucuses, with Dean finishing a disappointing third. Kerry’s political fortunes began to turn around almost immediately. His New Hampshire poll numbers reversed their trend and, by the weekend before the primary, he had moved into first place. Kerry edged out Dean to win the New Hampshire Primary and take over the mantle of frontrunner. From there, Dean was no longer a factor as Kerry practically swept through the remaining primaries and caucuses on his way to the nomination, losing only a handful of contests to various candidates.
This time around, the candidates are once again focused on Iowa and New Hampshire. They know these states are where the race is likely to be won or lost. They understand the power of momentum in presidential politics.