Sorry, But We’re Halfway to Iowa and New Hampshire

Two years ago this month, we witnessed the 2020 Democratic Primary’s first four contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Two years from now, we might see both parties with competitive primaries in those states. This month — February 2022 — marks the halfway point.

What do you think, PPFA readers? Are you surprised by how quickly these two years have gone?

Oh, that’s right, that whole “Covid pandemic” thing started right after those early contests; in March 2020, the NBA shut down, Tom Hanks got sick, and I was sent home from school for a “two week” pause. Two years has felt like two decades of wearing masks, socially distancing, and diving behind large objects every time someone coughs. It feels like a lifetime since the Iowa debacle, the Klobuchar New Hampshire surprise, and the predictable (for PPFA), triumphant Biden comeback.

But if the pace of time speeds up to compensate for whatever the hell the last two years were, the next primary will be here before we know it. When taking our first baby steps into considering the 2024 early contests, I think we need to separate our analysis into three questions:

  1. Will Iowa and New Hampshire even keep their spots?
  2. To what extent will the early primaries be competitive?
  3. If they are competitive, who are the likely competitors?

I know, I know. For many of you, it’s too soon for these sorts of questions. But if that were the case, why the heck are you reading Presidential Politics for America? You know want to keep going.

So let’s go.

1. Will Iowa and New Hampshire even keep their spots?

For Republicans, I think we can expect the same early state order of their last few cycles: Iowa–>New Hampshire–>South Carolina–>Nevada. The Republican National Committee doesn’t face the push for change that their political rivals do.

But over in the Democratic Party, the Iowa fiasco of 2020 — where the delayed and complex reporting of results left everyone dazed and confused — may have accelerated the dethroning of Iowa as Democrats’ first-in-the-nation contest. There had already been scuttlebutt that Iowa and New Hampshire’s days as the first caucus and primary were numbered. A party that relies so heavily on minority voters has had a hard time justifying why two of the nation’s seven whitest states have so much sway over the nomination process. Promoting other states to the front of the line would address that concern.

On the other hand, dismissing white voters at a time when they’re dripping out of the party may exacerbate the problem. There’s also the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire going first. Those voters take their responsibility seriously, and their increased experience in vetting candidates should not be taken for granted; moving up new states every four years just so everyone gets a turn could do more harm than good. Finally, it makes some sense that candidates take time in small states to meet a large portion of a state’s voters face-to-face, something that wouldn’t be possible in heavily minority states, which are inherently high in population.

PPFA’s solution, which no one ever seeks for some reason, is to rotate the four early states in a 16-year cycle. Nevada and South Carolina already represent the Hispanic and African American vote, respectively, and they could each have their turn kicking off the election season. I’d also separate Iowa and New Hampshire so they’re never the first two and they never lead off in back-to-back elections. In practice, it could look like this:

This proposal keeps these four experienced, not-too-large states in front while also rotating the demographics’ primacy. We can expect Iowa and New Hampshire would object to this solution, but this compromise would at least keep them in the mix; the alternative may be that the DNC takes it out of their hands by penalizing those states’ Democratic National Convention delegation size. The writing is on the wall that their days are numbered, particularly after Iowa defecated all over its cornfields.

But do they ask for PPFA’s opinion? They do not.

Whether the Democratic National Committee demotes Iowa and/or New Hampshire this cycle remains to be seen. It was considered a sure thing coming out of Iowa, but as the memory fades the momentum for change does too. Meanwhile, both states’ laws and parties suggest they’d do whatever it takes to retain their position, jumping in front of other states as early as necessary.

There has been conflicting reporting on whether a change will happen:

  • March 31, 2021 — Politico: “Dems could dethrone Iowa”
  • April 8 — FiveThirtyEight: “Many Democrats Are Sick Of Iowa And New Hampshire Going First, But The Primary Calendar Is Unlikely To Change”
  • October 9 — Washington Post: “Democrats edge toward dumping Iowa’s caucuses as the first presidential vote”
  • December 20 — Politico: “Dems sour on bid to ditch first-in-the-nation states”

It’s almost as if, maybe, sometimes — and hear me out — the media doesn’t really know what’s going on and instead just tries to fill column inches and airtime? I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here.

Anyway, I’m thinking momentum has turned against reforming the calendar in 2024, probably for the reason given in that most recent Politico piece: “Party officials don’t want to project a disunified front with a stormy midterm election season ahead.” And with a “stormy” election perpetually around the corner these days, the fear of in-party fighting will always dissuade controversial changes.

We’ll see. On to question 2…

2. To what extent will the primaries be competitive?

My first post of the year shared my belief that if Donald Trump wants the Republican nomination, it’s all his. Any #NeverTrump opponents brave enough to walk the campaign trail would end up as flattened roadkill.

That said, I must say I’m excited about a budding Trump-DeSantis rivalry, as I do think Governor DeSantis’s hot streak has positioned him as the only threat to Trump’s nomination. However, DeSantis is plenty young enough to wait for Trump to either fail in 2024, or be re-elected and therefore ineligible in 2028. (For the record, I wouldn’t rule out President Trump spending his second term working to overturn the 22nd Amendment and getting plenty of support from fawning Republicans, especially if the alternative to President-for-Life Trump was *shudder* a Democrat). For that reason, I don’t think DeSantis risks losing support from Trump voters by going head-to-head with the former President.

All considered, I’d guess a Trump run looks a lot like 2020, only with afterthoughts Bill Weld and Joe Walsh (did you even know they ran?) getting replaced by other nonfactors that aren’t competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, to say nothing of the other 48 states, 6 territories, and District of Columbia. That would make the early states quite the snooze fest on the Republican side.

The question then becomes how the Democrats respond to the increasing certainty of a Trump nomination. Will they reason that President Biden beat Trump once so he’s the best chance to beat him again? After all, Biden’s strength in the election was that he eroded Trump’s advantages with the white working class, which helped flip Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin back to the blue column. The wins in those states and other key battlegrounds were narrow, and risking the nomination of a less “electable” candidate would be a stressful proposition for the party.

In that scenario, if President Biden wants to run again and the party doesn’t want to risk challenging the incumbent and dividing Democrats, he would also be without a serious challenge in the primaries. As a result, we’d get a Trump-Biden rematch, which would be decidedly anticlimactic for the early states and only slightly more preferable than the world blowing up and every shard of the planet flying into my eyeballs.

On the the other hand, two factors work against a Biden re-nomination. Although Trump would be 78 by the 2024 election, Biden would be 81. The three years didn’t mean that much when they were 77 and 74, but boy, put an 8 in front of someone’s age and things change pretty quickly. Furthermore, Trump, thanks to a lifestyle that alternates between forcefully yelling and daintily tanning, is good at appearing younger than his advanced age. Biden looks older, sounds older, and has been in politics forever, becoming Senator-elect from Delaware before Apollo 17 landed on the moon.

And then there’s that second, more important factor. To say that President Biden’s effectiveness is in dispute is an understatement. His flagging approval ratings show the voters want someone else. A recent poll from highly rated Quinnipiac showed Biden down to 33% nationally, lower than President Trump ever was in the poll. An AP-NORC poll found that only 48% of Democrats want Biden to run for re-election.

Might that convince the party apparatus and voters to push him aside for someone else? It certainly should. Short of that, Biden may even voluntarily step aside.

If that happens — and/or if Trump doesn’t run either — Iowa and New Hampshire could actually give us some excitement. That brings us to…

3. If Iowa and New Hampshire ARE competitive, who can we expect will compete?

On the Republican side, if Trump doesn’t run, the party will want someone who embraces his presidency. The nominee must channel not just Trump’s political ideology — which even anti-Trump Republicans like Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, and Adam Kitzinger supported to a greater degree than those who have supplanted them in the GOP hierarchy — but also his aura as better than Lincoln and the true winner of the 2020 election.

DeSantis is a strong candidate, obviously — I’d say the strongest. In his top tier is former Vice President Mike Pence, who spent a presidential campaign and 3.96 out of his 4 VP years walking the tightrope between Trump sycophant and perfect conservative, waiting for his chance to run for the top job.

Also in this tier is Ted Cruz. Runners-up in GOP primaries have a strong record in recent Republican history:

From the Reagan until Trump, the only Republican runners-up to not to secure a future nomination were Pat Buchanan, who finished second to Bob Dole in 1996 but didn’t seek the nomination in 2000 (he instead ran under the Reform Party banner), and Rick Santorum, who finished second to Mitt Romney in 2012 but failed to recapture Iowa magic in 2016 when Trump hoarded all the magic to himself. History is on Cruz’s side.

In the next tier are 2016 retreads Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul. I’d also keep an eye out for Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (smart cookie!), New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu (crossover appeal!), former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (a woman!), former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (half off!), Florida Representative Marjorie Taylor Green (QAnon approved!), and newly minted Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (the red blueprint). Of this group, I like Cotton with the most breakout potential.

Over on the Democratic side, a Biden-less primary means Vice-President Harris is the odds-on favorite, particularly if party members have some sort of political suicide pact I don’t know about. I tried warning the party repeatedly about her smoke-and-mirrors approach to campaigning, and it caught up to her well before Iowans even reported to their caucuses. No 2020 campaign had a bigger negative gap between expectations and results, so naturally some Democrats will want to nominate her in 2024.

Like in the GOP, a campaign without the nominal party leader would lead to comebacks from 2020, including, I think, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and if there is a God and He has a sense of humor, Marianne Williamson. I don’t think my preferred 2020 candidates — Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg — will make a run. Klobuchar just didn’t get the traction she was hoping for and now four years older may be resolved to being a Senate powerbroker for the rest of her career, perhaps a Majority/Minority Leader one day. Potential party savior Buttigieg is too smart to run in what I think will be a negative game script for the Democratic nominee, particularly as a Transportation Secretary who may have to answer for stymied supply chains. He’ll be back in a more opportune political climate, perhaps after getting elected to an office back in Indiana.

In the “electable” lane, which would be extra appealing in the face of a Trump nomination and Biden withdrawal, we may see former Montana governor Steve Bullock give it another go. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper has similar crossover credentials. New York Mayor Eric Adams is getting a lot of buzz as the latest moderate NYC chief who can flame out of a presidential bid. I’m also still waiting for the Sherrod Brown Presidential Run That Makes Too Much Sense™.

Starring in the not-too-electable lane is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As crazy as Democrats think Marjorie Taylor-Greene is, Republicans think worse of the Dems’ hyphenated counterpart. Stacey Abrams might run and has proven a master mobilizer, but she’ll need to first win the Georgia gubernatorial this year, as I don’t think someone who topped out at the state house will make a big run in a Democratic Primary; unlike the Republican Party, Democrats think government experience is beneficial, not a corruptor. Speaking of experience, Bernie Sanders may threaten a run at 83, but only if you kids stay off his lawn.

I have just two more names in mind — but they’re gigantic.

From where I sit, as of February 2022, the most likely person to be president on January 21, 2025, is Donald Trump. Consider that:

  • A) He has the Republican Party wrapped around his finger;
  • B) His party has a sizable advantage in the Electoral College (assuming the same distribution of votes, Trump would have won the last election even if he had lost by 3 or 4 points nationally); and
  • C) The Democratic brand is hurting.

For those reasons, if he runs, I’d say Trump is close to even money to be our first president since Grover Cleveland to serve nonconcurrent terms. Sorry, Democrats, but unless the political climate really shifts — and it could! — I wouldn’t install any names I listed as favorites against him, save perhaps Sherrod Brown. I really wouldn’t.

However, another name looms that would be a favorite in a showdown against Trump, and it’s a big one. That name is…

Michelle Obama.

But whether she wants it is a whole different conversation. I’d guess she doesn’t, because if anything can move a generally well-liked person into a divisive person, it’s a run for president. Still, if the party is desperate enough and a Trump presidency looks increasingly inevitable, she may have no choice. In the scenario, her lack of experience would be dwarfed by the hope that her popularity could beat Trump.

And the last name I have in mind? It’s one of those names that can only be met with one meme — the meme that says, “No. Nope. No way. I can’t believe it. That’s insane. . . . Actually, wait, that kinda makes sense!”

That name?

Hillary. Rodham. Clinton.

I know. It’s absolutely crazy. So crazy… it just might work.

Let the two-year countdown to Iowa and New Hampshire begin! See you next time.


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