An Odd Couple With Big Influence

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008; Page A01

GRUNDY CENTER, Iowa -- Two states guard the campaign trail as though they own it. Their influence on national politics is wildly disproportionate to their modest populations. Neither has anything that could be called a large city, or a slum, or a sprawling suburb. Both are dotted with small towns where everyone knows everyone else. One is very white, the other whiter still.

Iowa and New Hampshire have defied all predictions of their impending obsolescence. By the time Iowans finish caucusing Thursday and New Hampshirites vote in their primary five days later, the course of the 2008 presidential race may have been shaped, before many people in 48 other states have even paid much attention.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D), whose own state of Michigan tried unsuccessfully to edge its way into the early primary picture this year, has dismissed one of those states' outsize roles in the primary process -- New Hampshire's -- as "cockamamie." And it's easy to understand the jealousy the rest of the country feels over the attention lavished on voters there and in Iowa.

In Grundy Center, for example, a farming community in northeast Iowa with a population just a hair over 2,500 (98.8 percent non-Hispanic white), presidential candidates have pulled into town to make stump speeches 13 times, according to a recent tally by the Des Moines Register.

When challenged, leaders in both Iowa and New Hampshire respond with one voice, citing tradition and the dedication of their citizens as justification for their special role. But beyond their status as campaign-trail behemoths, Iowa and New Hampshire have little in common.

As is apparent to any candidate or strategist or journalist shuttling from Manchester to Des Moines and back (flying over such temporarily irrelevant places as Ohio and Illinois), the two states are about as similar as ethanol and granola. As dirt and granite. As a John Deere tractor and a moose.

There is the recurring linear/bent, flat/rugged, dull/eccentric distinction. Iowa is a place where the relatively flat terrain has been graded and plowed and laser-leveled even flatter on behalf of industrial agriculture. From the air it is a checkerboard, defined by "sections" platted long before humans busted the prairie sod. Amid the corn and soybeans, the occasional human structure pokes up like a jimson weed.

New Hampshire, by contrast, is heavily warped and woofed. It is full of mountain hollows and tumbling streams and roads that refuse to go in a straight line.

Iowa, as any campaign strategist quickly discovers, is physically a much bigger state (23rd largest in size, 30th in population). The caucus formula gives weight to small counties, meaning a typical Iowa campaign trip takes a candidate to places that haven't had a nonpolitical tourist since the 1800s. Most people in New Hampshire (44th largest in size, 41st in population) live in the southern part of the state within screaming distance of one another.

Iowa has monocultures (corn, soybeans, evangelical Christians), while New Hampshire has micro-cultures (dairy farmers, factory workers, college professors, art colony inhabitants, Slow Food advocates, lumberjacks, commuters to Boston).

Iowa's farmers and evangelicals are potentially huge voting blocs. In New Hampshire there are no voting blocs, and citizens have such an independent streak that a candidate would be lucky to carry all the registered voters in any particular household.

Some Iowans think their system is superior. Bob Brinton, city attorney in the town of Clarion, says caucuses are "much better" than a primary because people have to get up in front of their friends and neighbors and take a stand. A caucus doesn't involve "indifferent people who don't give a damn anyway," he says.

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