How Important Are Iowa and New Hampshire to Winning Post-Reform Presidential Nominations?

By Adkins, Randall E.; Dowdle, Andrew J. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2001 | Go to article overview

How Important Are Iowa and New Hampshire to Winning Post-Reform Presidential Nominations?


Adkins, Randall E., Dowdle, Andrew J., Political Research Quarterly


While conventional wisdom holds that the first delegate selection events in Iowa and New Hampshire are important influences on the outcome of the presidential selection process, scholars increasingly question whether victories in these "bellwether" contests are sufficient to propel darkhorse candidates to the nomination. This study utilizes four OLS regression models to predict nomination outcomes from 1980 to 1996 where the incumbent president did not sit for reelection. Earlier research demonstrated the possibility of forecasting presidential nominations by examining the results of (1) public opinion polls; FEC records regarding (2) money raised; and (3) cash reserves; and (4) whether candidates were southern Democrats (Mayer 1996a; Adkins and Dowdle 2000). Utilizing measures representing the outcome of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, this study contrasts the effect of momentum from these early contests on final primary vote totals. Evidence suggests that New Hampshire plays a role in determining the ordinal ranking of candidate finishes, but not necessarily the winner of the party nomination.

Since the reform movement of the 1970s, both major parties selected their presidential nominees in the months prior to the convention (Aldrich 1980). A growing number of scholars now claim that the pre-convention period has settled into a particular "rhythm" or "pattern" that leads to a greater degree of predictability in determining nomination outcomes (see Barilleaux and Adkins 1993; Mayer 1996a; Adkins and Dowdle 2000). Specifically, the nomination cycle stabilized into five distinct periods: the exhibition season, the media fishbowl or winnowing stage, the breakaway stage, the mop-up stage, and the convention stage (for elaboration see Cook 1989; Barilleaux and Adkins 1993).

The conventional wisdom argues that candidate performance in the "media fishbowl" stage has the greatest effect on final nomination outcomes. Delegate selection events during this period play a crucial role in attracting media coverage, gaining the attention of the national public, and winnowing the field of candidates (Matthews 1978; Abramowitz and Stone 1984; Brereton 1987). A strong finish in these early battles generates "momentum" by drawing increased media coverage, monetary contributions, and campaign volunteers (Mayer 1987; Bartels 1988; Cronin and Loevy 1994). Even with the advent of frontloading, most observers still maintain that the Iowa and New Hampshire contests are major stepping stones to final victory (Polsby 1989; Abramowitz, Rapoport, and Stone 1991; Winebrenner 1998). Many recent Iowa and New Hampshire victors, however, were unable to secure their party's nomination. Those early victors who ultimately won the nomination were already the frontrunners in either the exhibition season Gallup polls and/or the amount of early money raised. In fact, in every instance since 1980 frontrunners went on to secure the party's nomination even if they lost in Iowa or New Hampshire. Thus, if frontrunners tend to win presidential nominations, what factors determine who becomes the frontrunner and when does the frontrunner surface?

Part of the new, post-reform pattern of nomination politics is the emergence of an "exhibition season" prior to the first delegate selection events.' Before 1972 very little campaign activity occurred in the year prior to the presidential election. As the post-reform system stabilized candidates adapted their campaign styles by raising money and organizing early. Even a cursory examination of FEC reports demonstrates that organizational activities occur both earlier and in greater volume today than in the initial years of the post-reform era. At the outset of the exhibition season aspirants have little money, no formal organization, and little national name recognition. By the end of the exhibition season these aspirants issue formal declarations of their candidacy, raise millions of dollars, hire hundreds of professional staffers, and open a dozen or more state offices. …

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