Decision 2016: A tale of four states

Between the 2014 Senate race and the 2015 statewide elections (which produced a gubernatorial runoff for the first time in 12 years), Louisiana has been in a seemingly endless election cycle since early 2013. And despite the holiday season, the Presidential primary season is now upon us, as the Iowa caucuses are just over four weeks away.

Currently, the GOP field (which is the focus of this article) is a crowded one, with 12 major candidates in the race as this article is being written. While a lot can and will happen over the next few months, a basic understanding of the four “warm up” contests (as well as the associated voter psychology that will deem each candidate as a winner or a loser, and eventually, the perceived nominee) will provide a good roadmap as to what lies ahead for the Republicans.

When following Presidential primaries, it’s important to appreciate that the four primaries/caucuses to be held over a three week period in February will rapidly streamline the crowded field, as those contests are a miniaturized version of the various components of the Republican voter base.

  1. Iowa Caucus (February 1): While in fall elections, Iowa is a swing state, it is still a mostly rural, culturally traditional state. There currently are 647,000 registered Republicans, and they make up 31% of the electorate. This is an important statistic in understanding the Iowa caucus, as it is only open to registered Republicans, and it is a caucus (not a primary), which means that “voting” is not a five minute exercise – a several hour time commitment is required. Given all of the above, evangelicals will play a significant part in determining which candidate leaves Iowa a winner, a contender, or a casualty among conservatives. This evangelical influence, in fact, has been a given as far back as the 1988 caucuses, when Pat Robertson shocked political pundits by finishing ahead of George H.W. Bush, even though neither Bush nor Robertson actually “won” Iowa (that honor went to Bob Dole). For 2016, it currently looks like the religious conservative/evangelical vote has coalesced behind Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and businessman Donald Trump is running a close second. None of the other candidates, except perhaps Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) are within striking distance;
  2. New Hampshire Primary (February 9): New Hampshire casts its votes eight days after Iowa does, and it is a contest substantially different from the Iowa caucus in three ways: (1) New Hampshire has a primary, not a caucus, which means that voting is a five minute exercise; (2) Independents are allowed to participate in the primary, and there are 384,000 of them (representing 44% of the electorate), while Republicans make up another 261,000 (or 30%), and (3) the New Hampshire electorate (even among Republicans) is more moderate than Iowa’s, as the state is increasingly becoming the home of Boston, Massachusetts suburbanites.  This means that while Ted Cruz’s conservatism plays well in Iowa and Southern states, it will likely hurt him in New Hampshire. Thus far, Donald Trump is the man to beat in New Hampshire, although 41% of poll respondents favor one of the four “Establishment Republicans” (Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush). While 41% is greater than the Trump percentage, it is too fragmented right now for any one of those four candidates to break out, although a lot can change over the next month;
  3. South Carolina Republican Primary (February 20): With one exception (the 2012 primary), the winner of South Carolina has become the Republican nominee ever since Ronald Reagan’s decisive victory in 1980. And unlike either Iowa or New Hampshire, anyone can vote in this primary (South Carolina does not have party registration). Nevertheless, the Republican primary electorate is stereotypically conservative and dominated by evangelicals, although it’s also worth noting that the coastal counties in and around Charleston have attracted a critical mass of northern retirees who are politically more moderate. While Donald Trump currently leads, it’s possible that Ted Cruz can galvanize the evangelical/conservative primary voters to win this state, particularly if the GOP field thins out as expected after Iowa and/or New Hampshire;
  4. Nevada Republican Caucus (February 23): Nevada’s Republican voters tend to be more libertarian, and are geographically concentrated in Las Vegas. Furthermore, this is a caucus (which favors more activist voters) that is only open to registered Republicans (Nevada has 486,000 of them, and they comprise 33% of the electorate). Very little polling has been conducted here, but the polling which has been conducted shows Donald Trump with a big lead.

Equally as important as the sequencing of the first four primaries is the “winner/loser psychology” which inevitably takes place, and plays a role in determining which candidates get extra funding/attention and which ones get written off by the donors, pundits, and the media. Even assuming all 12 major Republican candidates stay in the race until Iowa, the expectation (as well as the actual showings) of who should be in first, second, or third place after Iowa and New Hampshire will rapidly thin the field by February 10 (the day after the New Hampshire voting has concluded).

So why are these four primaries so important ? After the February 23 Nevada Republican caucuses, primary dates will more often than not consist of multiple primaries/caucuses on the same day, which places a premium on candidates who have enough money to spend on mass media – in other words, it becomes much more difficult to engage in the type of personal campaigning that is a must for those campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. So in a sense, those four states (especially Iowa and New Hampshire) play a outsized role in vetting candidates in either party.