Iowa coffee shops and New Hampshire town hall meetings are staples of presidential nominating battles, as familiar to followers of American politics as national conventions and candidate debates. But the long run of the two states at the front of the nomination process may be in jeopardy.
For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire have held the opening and most coveted spots on the calendar, with the power to winnow the field of candidates and select the finalists for the parties' nominations before most Americans begin paying serious attention to presidential politics.
Their role has bred resentment, however, particularly from Democrats who say the two small states with largely white populations are neither large enough nor diverse enough to be granted such an influential role in selecting presidential nominees. Today, a newly appointed Democratic Party commission with an unwieldy name will begin debating whether it's time to let other states supplant Iowa and New Hampshire at the front end.
The Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling represents the fruits of a long-standing campaign by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a critic of the role of Iowa and New Hampshire. Levin pulled back a challenge to the two states during the 2004 campaign in return for a pledge from then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe to review of the entire calendar before 2008.
"What we're focusing on is removing the huge impact, the disproportionate impact, the discriminatory impact, the unfair impact that two states have on this process because they've insisted they go ahead of everybody else," Levin said. "They cannot sustain the fairness of a position where candidates visit them probably 50 times more than any other state."
Levin said no state, including his, should have a permanent spot at the start of the nomination battle.
Former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, who is a member of the commission, defended her state's role. "Those of us who have participated believe it's important to have a process where candidates have to interact with voters one-on-one," she said. "In New Hampshire, as in Iowa, there is a very engaged electorate that is involved, looks at all the candidates and questions them about what their vision is for running for president. That's important for the process."
It has been two decades since the DNC formally reviewed the nominating calendar. In those intervening years, Iowa and New Hampshire have maintained their protected status at the front end of the calendar, but many more states have moved their events earlier in the year. A contest that once stretched from winter until early June now effectively ends in early March.
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), who was staff director when the Democrats examined the calendar in the early 1980s, will co-chair the new commission. He said the mandate and focus of the group is far broader than the roles of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Price wants the commission to explore whether it makes sense to change the pacing of the nomination battle, which in 2004 began and largely ended when Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in succeeding weeks. "In a lot of minds, including mine, you'd like to think of the nomination process as a period of testing, not a one-shot test . . . where there's a chance for some second thoughts and correction if necessary," he said.
Price also does not believe the system is at fault for the Democrats' failure to win the presidency in the past two elections. "I don't think there's a sense that the process is broken, necessarily," he said. "There's a desire to explore ways it might be improved."
Former labor secretary Alexis M. Herman, who will co-chair the panel with Price, said she has not heard widespread dissatisfaction with the role of Iowa and New Hampshire and called the commission's mandate "a holistic review" of how Democrats pick their presidential nominees.
Today's opening session will include presentations from several academic experts on the nomination calendar: how it came to be what it is now, and whether a party commission can make significant changes, given that states such as New Hampshire have laws mandating their place on the primary schedule.
One of the candidates Kerry defeated on his march to the nomination was former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who looked as if he might be the Democrat who would sweep to the nomination before Kerry surprised him in Iowa. Among the obstacles Dean faced in the final weeks of the campaign were remarks he had made years earlier critical of the Iowa caucuses. Dean now chairs the DNC and will receive the commission's recommendations at the end of the year.