GELFAND ON POLITICS- Happy New Year. What's in store for 2014? I think that American liberalism has some good years left and that the Tea Party phenomenon has peaked, but it will remain a toxin for some years to come. We'll see the initial jockeying for the presidential nominations of both parties, which means that throughout 2014, we will endure that pox upon the face of the American body politic, the lead up to the New Hampshire primary.
New Hampshire residents did not earn the right to hold the first presidential primary. They just took it. They love the attention they get, starting a full two years before the election. They love the money that gets spent by all the campaigns and candidates. They love the chance to hold personal conversations with the next leader of the free world. They love the power they have in focusing the national choice.
Serious candidates don't dare to comment negatively on this most ridiculous of traditions. Instead, they open offices, create teams of field operatives, and visit cafes and private homes in places like Nashua and Manchester.
It's politics at the retail level, purchased one vote at a time. There is some virtue in this process, but the wider effect is that the interests of a small, rural New England state are given undue preeminence. Presidential candidates don't spend a lot of time talking about competition with the Panama Canal (a real concern here in Los Angeles), or trade with the Pacific Rim, or barriers against hurricane floods.
Candidates don't spend a lot of time talking to voters here in California either, other than to attend fundraising events. Our concerns as the nation's most populous state are largely ignored during the primary season. As Californians and as people, we don't get a chance to have those chats with candidates over coffee at the local diner, the ones that are considered to be a hereditary right by New Hampshire residents. There are 47 other states in the same bind.
Interestingly, recent history has been making New Hampshire less and less pivotal. Iowa is one reason, but the other reason is the remarkably bad judgment shown by New Hampshire voters over the past half century. Let's start with the Democratic winners in those years when the primary was some kind of contest, by which I mean an election in which there was no incumbent president running.
Here's the list of winners in the New Hampshire Democratic primary contests since 1952 (not counting incumbent presidents).
Estes Kefauver (both 1952 and 1956), John Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton.
Out of 11 contests, that's 9 losers including the last 6 in a row. Only John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter have broken the New Hampshire hex.
Here's one telling fact. Of the candidates in that list, fully five have been from one of New Hampshire's immediate neighbors. If you consider that Hillary Clinton went to college in Massachusetts, you can add another New Englander to the list. Apparently, only candidates from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine are good enough for New Hampshire voters most of the time.
What's particularly weird is that New Hampshire voters view themselves as something special. They feel that they have some deep inner rapport with presidential candidates, and ultimately with presidents. But their voting record doesn't bear that out. When you look at the results, they seem to be basically a bunch of nimbys who are strongly affected by the Boston media market. In other words, they are just average voters in an average place who have been lucky enough to have extraordinary privileges.
Of course there are other Democrats, not on that list of primary winners, who went on to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. Since 1992, those winners are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Notice the delightful irony. It seems that in recent decades, a Democrat can only win the presidency by finishing second in the New Hampshire primary. Perhaps the tide will turn the next time around, but for the superstitious candidate (and what person in politics isn't at least a little bit superstitious?), the trend is ominous.
And how, exactly, does a candidate strategize to finish exactly second, and not first or third?
Eerily enough, even the Republicans have been showing a little of that second place effect in New Hampshire of late. Romney and McCain won the primaries, only to lose the national election. George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2000, but went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
Republicans have traditionally been more loyal to their frontrunning candidates, and did manage to propel Bush Sr, Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower through the New Hampshire primary and to a winning presidential run. On the other hand, the New Hampshire Republicans have also managed to provide primary victories to Pat Buchanan (1996), Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and Harold Stassen. You can't come up with a better definition of loser than that second list.
Whatever else you say, New Hampshire is sucking up a huge proportion of the national political energy, but not actually presenting the rest of the states with decent candidates. We would be better off spreading the wealth around a little, giving other states a chance to go before New Hampshire.
And then there's Iowa.
Jimmy Carter figured out that there was one trick he could pull to get a head start on the Democratic nomination in 1976. He concentrated on the Iowa caucuses, which come before the New Hampshire primary. Carter won 10,764 votes, which was second place, right behind the uncommitted selection, which received a resounding 14,508 votes. The first 3 finishers had a combined total of less than 31,000 votes -- a decent turnout for a City Council election in Los Angeles, but way below an average turnout for a seat in the state legislature. The media jumped all over Carter's victory because he had been relatively unknown until that point.
Another miserable tradition was born. Now candidates have to divide their time between Iowa and New Hampshire.
Notice that neither state is particularly urban, or particularly non-white. Iowa actually has more hogs than people. But we as a nation place a huge amount of importance on these first two contests, and the rest of the states have never had a chance to argue for a different system.
Still, there is an argument to be made for having the first contest in a small enough population to allow candidates to be vetted by the voters at a more direct, personal level. In this sense, Iowa and New Hampshire act as surrogates for us ordinary people. The folks who happen to be in a diner when Hillary or Mitt pop in will get to know them at a more personal level.
But there are lots of small states. How about Oregon? Minnesota? Nevada? Any one of these would fulfill the same criteria, and allow a little mixing in the system. Or we could do a lottery. Maybe New Jersey would win the toss. Whatever we did to change the system, the result would likely be more fair than what we have now.
There's been one truly pernicious effect of the New Hampshire primary. Other states understand the advantages of being early. As states moved the dates of their primaries up in order to compete, New Hampshire kept moving its primary up even more. The old joke is that New Hampshire, if pressed, will move its primary up to the day before Thanksgiving of the preceding year.
The overall result is that our presidential nominating system includes half a year of primaries alone. When you add up the pre-primary jockeying, it's a very long process. In practice, the presidential campaign requires the winner either to be out of work or a Senator. Who else has the time to make all those campaign trips?
We can make some 2014 predictions with a fair bit of certainty. Pundits will concentrate on the presidential aspirations of 3 Republican senators -- Cruz, Rubio, and Paul. They will talk about Governor Christie a lot. Any rational assessment would suggest that none could win the general election, but since they provide good copy, they will get covered. Pundits will also treat Hillary Clinton as the front runner unless or until she announces her candidacy, at which point they will start concentrating on her negatives. Democratic Party strategists will wish they had a southern governor or an army general to run, missing the point entirely.
There's one thing that's easy to predict for the year 2014. The fighting over seats in the US Senate and in the House of Representatives will be vicious. Republicans will be counting on voters having a very short memory. Democrats will probably adopt the same strategy.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch and can be reached at email@example.com)
Vol 11 Issue 105
Pub: Dec 31, 2013