It was part of Trump’s mad genius that he could get away with saying things like that, but other candidates are not so lucky. In fact, they are called upon to perform a ritual of supplication before the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire if they want to reach the Oval Office — a ritual that is only made more humiliating by the fact that they have to pretend to enjoy every moment of it.
And if they should forget for a moment, they’ll be reminded, as this story about Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) illustrates:
And her chances of capturing New Hampshire were viewed with such a jaundiced eye by local media that one of Harris’ first exchanges during a two-day swing — with an in-state reporter — included a not-so-subtle reminder that she waited weeks after announcing her White House bid to travel to the Granite State.“We’re glad you’re here,” the reporter told Harris. Then he asked whether her absence helped feed the perception that New Hampshire isn’t a high priority.Another interviewer — this one on ABC affiliate WMUR — was more direct: “We haven’t seen much of you in the previous two years. Why was that?” he asked. “The narrative is out there, I guess, that ‘Sen. Harris is focusing elsewhere.’”
How dare she not spend every available moment there, showing New Hampshire voters how wonderfully special they are to her?
Granted, this wasn’t New Hampshire voters asking those questions; it was the state’s reporters. But everyone there has an interest in keeping that first-in-the-nation status. It means money for hotels and restaurants from the influx of reporters and campaign operatives every four years, but even more importantly, it means attention, influence and status. Local activists are courted by national figures, and local politicians can expect to be treated like kings and queens. Manchester has about the same population as Gresham, Ore., or Palm Bay, Fla., but the mayors of those towns probably won’t have every presidential candidate calling them up, flattering them and begging for their support. Likewise, the reporters who grilled Harris for her insufficient attention to the state were jealously guarding their own place of importance in this most important process.
And what did they all do to deserve that status? Not much.
It’s mostly an accident of history, having to do with party reforms made between the 1968 and 1972 elections that took the decision of who would be the nominees out of the smoke-filled rooms and into the voting booth, giving us the primary system we have today. Before then, it didn’t much matter which state was first and which last, since primaries and caucuses didn’t determine delegates to the party conventions.
But once the power they were wielding became clear, people in Iowa and New Hampshire made sure we all accepted that their status is somehow natural and proper. It isn’t going to change; Both states have laws mandating that their contests take place before any other states'.
The two states aren’t representative of the country; both are more rural and white than America overall. But more to the point, no one or two states could represent the nation. And their long traditions of primacy have led them to insist not only that they get this inordinate attention but also that candidates pretend that there is no greater honor than spending a disproportionate amount of time courting the voters of those two states.
Even if you don't agree with Trump that the people of Iowa are particularly stupid, you can't say they're more insightful or wise than other Americans. They have their parochial concerns like anyone else (ethanol!) and they've come to expect a particularly personal brand of politics from presidential candidates, in which it isn't enough to have a strong policy agenda or a praiseworthy character. You have to come and demonstrate it to each of them. Personally.
Which means that candidates who are deft at that kind of personal interaction are more likely to do well. It isn’t a guarantee — Trump came in second in Iowa and won New Hampshire despite the fact that he avoided getting too close to voters, preferring to campaign in a series of rallies — but the system definitely favors those whose personal charm helps them excel at the one-on-one schmooze.
Which, it should be noted, is something presidents don't really need to do in order to govern the country. It might be entertaining to watch the future leader of the free world try desperately to "connect" with voters down at the Laconia VFW hall or at a coffee klatch in somebody's living room in Dubuque, but it doesn't tell us much of anything about what sort of president they'd be.
What may be the worst part of all, however, isn't the fault of the Iowa and New Hampshire voters. It's the way candidates are brutally culled by the news media if they fail to perform well enough in those two states — a decision made according to a set of arbitrary and ever-shifting criteria in which sometimes coming in second or third is a terrible defeat and sometimes it's a glorious victory. A few thousand votes in those contests can be the difference between "This candidate is a magnificent hero whom all in the party have come to admire" and "This candidate is a pathetic loser who ought to do us all a favor and disappear."
In a better world, we’d have a system in which the order of primaries changed every year, with some guarantee that the earliest few would be more representative of the country (urban and rural, large and small, and so on). It is helpful that Iowa and New Hampshire are followed by Nevada and South Carolina, which have large Latino and African-American populations, respectively.
Nevertheless, we’re still living under the tyranny of the first two states, and we may never be able to pry them off the perch they now enjoy. But we don’t have to pretend we like it.