The Irresistible Duopoly Of Iowa And New Hampshire

We are slipping up on another presidential election cycle, and once again, threats that Democrats and Republicans would come together to deny Iowa and New Hampshire their irrationally privileged position in the nominating process have come to naught. Aside from having long passed the window for national rules changes, with nothing happening that in any way endangered the duopoly, it’s now getting a bit late for potential candidates to make their initial pay-the-dues appearances in the town halls and potlucks of these two not-exactly-typical states. Indeed, would-be presidents are popping up with some regularity not just in Iowa and New Hampshire but in the cities and towns of their two more diverse geopolitical wingmen, South Carolina and Nevada, with which the First-in-the-Nation Caucus and Primary have shrewdly shared some of their money and attention.

Yes, Republicans have made some primary calendar changes to end the nomination contest earlier. But the only question about its insanely early beginning is whether Iowa will again hold a Straw Poll in Ames less than a year from now, or some replacement event(s). Meanwhile the Democratic contest moves into a full-fledged Invisible Caucus phase less than two weeks from now, when Hil and Bill Clinton headline the 37th (and final) Tom Harkin Steak Fry in — of course — Indianola, Iowa.

What’s most interesting this year, though, is the extent to which national political people have excuses for spending extra time and money in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Iowa is home to one of the closest Senate races in the country (a new Senate projection from HuffPost yesterday calls the Braley-Ernst race the closest in the country, an absolute 50/50 proposition). It is also arguably the only Senate battleground state that also has a highly competitive House race (the open Des Moines-based IA-03 seat). And Iowa’s also a partisan battleground over control of the state legislature.

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Since Iowans expect contributions to their local campaigns and their political parties as a sort of preliminary sign of respect before serious consideration of a presidential candidate, it’s a good thing the potentially crowded ‘16 field has plenty of options for checking that box. And up-and-coming young campaign operatives will have many options for “punching their ticket for the presidential” by toiling in Iowa legislative races.

But New Hampshire’s making its own advance claims on ’16ers. There are not one but two competitive House races in the Granite State this year. The State House is said to be in play. Like Iowa, NH has a non-competitive but real governor’s race. And if you believe a recent poll from WMUR-UNH, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s once-large lead over carpetbagger Republican Scott Brown has greatly diminished, too. Again, there are plenty of opportunities for making oneself useful in the First Primary State by raising or donating money, thumping the tubs for state and local candidates, and helping build the state party’s infrastructure.

For those not quickly invested in the 2016 presidential contest, the Duopoly States will have alternative reasons to visit them even after this November — and even after the Caucus and the Primary. You can expect fights for control of state legislative chambers again in 2016. It’s likely IA-03 and at least one of the NH House districts will again be up for grabs in ‘16. Both states will have Senate seats up; in a presidential year Republican Kelly Ayotte could be vulnerable, and octogenarian Chuck Grassley — who’s already announced for re-election — might change his mind and retire. And if the presidential general election is close — hey, Iowa and New Hampshire will likely be battleground states in November 2016 as well.

In any event, if you are young and a hopeless political junkie, you might as well take the plunge and become obsessively familiar with these two states. They’re not going anywhere, and their primacy in American politics has already outlived a generation of critics.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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