Nominations & Conventions

Current Practices

Iowa and New Hampshire
related video
Michael Dukakis on the role of Iowa.
Phil Smith on the 1976 Iowa Caucus.
Jack Corrigan on Iowa's unique role in the nomination process.
Iowa's importance may depend on many factors, including media perception of the candidate.

While both parties, especially Democrats, have altered their primary process and calendar often since the late 1960s, one trend remains constant: campaigns start with the Iowa caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primaries. Iowa caucuses became important in 1972, when Democrats held them in January.  The highest number of votes went to front-runner Edmund Muskie and insurgent candidate George McGovern. McGovern’s better than expected showing in Iowa boosted his candidacy, and his second place showing in New Hampshire provided more momentum.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the most votes of any Democratic candidate in Iowa and used this to boost his campaign as he headed to New Hampshire. Carter won New Hampshire before capturing the Democratic Party nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. The New Hampshire primary has played a key role in American politics since 1952. New Hampshire has protected its first primary in the nation status by passing a law that gives its secretary of state the power to change the date in order to precede any other primary by one week.  In 2012, the New Hampshire primary took place on January 10th.  The Democratic and Republican Parties have cemented New Hampshire’s role by limiting other states from holding any contests and punishing them for holding any elections before Iowa and New Hampshire. Instead of holding contests before Iowa and New Hampshire, for which they could lose delegates at the convention, several states have scheduled their contests to occur immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire. Each state highlights one of the two main ways voters choose delegates.

Caucuses are local, in-person meetings of party members, usually at the precinct level. Often, fewer than 10% of Republicans or Democrats participate in caucuses, so many observers question their effectiveness.  They seem to only attract the most passionate and dedicated members of political parties. Critics of the caucus system question how representative they are.  In Iowa, Democrats also point out the lack of ethnic minorities in the state. However, caucus defenders argue that the system tests candidates in a way no other state can and that it can unite the party.  They also emphasize the level of civic engagement in Iowa.

In Iowa, candidates must interact on a face-to-face, personalized basis, engaging in ‘retail politics.’ In the modern era, it is important for candidates to win or place in the top three of either Iowa or New Hampshire. The current process generally leads to quick decisions on candidates before voters can completely assess them.  The process also favors well-known and well-financed candidates.  Some critics complain that the early primary season creates a “rush to judgment.”  Those who defend early primaries note that a quick decision on the nominee allows the candidate to start working on their general election campaign. The current system is less than 50 years old, and despite its drawbacks, supporters note that presidential candidates are chosen in a much more open, democratic way than before.