One of the admittedly parochial concerns we in New Hampshire, as well as those in Iowa and other early-primary states, had as the Democratic Party set up its rules for holding candidate debates throughout this year was that they might so winnow the field of candidates and so firmly establish a front-runner that the early-state contests would have lessened impact than they historically have had or, worse, become an afterthought.
The unwieldy field of candidates — which at one time numbered over 20 — led the party to set rules for its series of nationally televised debates. As they played out over the summer and into the fall, those rules progressively raised the eligibility bar, ostensibly to ensure those left on the stage had viable candidacies, as measured by national and early-state polling results and by the number of individual donors. The criteria succeeded, at least in the sense that the candidates meeting them can now be squeezed onto a stage on a single night. But the worry that the early state contests would be diminished by the debate criteria may yet prove overstated.
As anyone tuning into the latest debate Tuesday night could see, the field of the 12 — yes, 12 — who qualified to appear on the stage remains unwieldy, and the cumbersome three-hour format continues to emphasize soundbite over substance. What was striking, however, is that with so many still on the stage, there seemed little reason to think even the seven candidates still running who didn’t make the cut have lost all hope.
And that’s where the early-state contests — in particular the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary — come in. In both states, there’s plenty of history of underdog candidates defying both the odds and the polls by taking advantage of the up-close retail politicking possible in those states. In the 2000 election campaign, for example, the long-shot and relatively penniless Arizona Sen. John McCain relentlessly crisscrossed New Hampshire holding town meetings and other campaign events — he stopped by The Sentinel often enough that we jokingly wondered if he were applying for a job with us — built voter excitement and late momentum, and upset the heavily favored George W. Bush in the Republican primary. McCain eventually lost the nomination to Bush, but in his 2008 election campaign, after squandering his early lead in the polls, draining his campaign coffers and firing most of his campaign staff, he returned to shoe-string, one-on-one politicking in New Hampshire and fought his way back into the race by winning the primary on his way to becoming the Republican Party’s nominee.
This is not to say that any of the most “under” of the current underdogs in the Democratic Party race will be able to pull off a similar stunner in this election cycle. And in New Hampshire, the path may be tougher because of the advantage often enjoyed by neighboring-state candidates — this time, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Even so, undeclared voters can vote in the primary, and meaningfully moving the needle against those on the more progressive end of the Democratic candidates’ spectrum may create momentum as the campaign moves on to other states. As for Iowa, given that there’s yet no breakout candidate, that state may still offer a hard-working, face-to-face campaigner the opportunity to grab a toehold and build some momentum where none seemingly exists.
On the Republican Party side, given the strong allegiance of President Trump’s core supporters, the state contests have been mostly considered a formality, but don’t rule out New Hampshire’s potential to provide a springboard in that race, either. A Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll released Monday found that support among likely Republican primary voters for former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who’s been spending plenty of time in New Hampshire, has increased from 3 to 14 percent since early September. Weld, too, may be benefiting from the neighboring-state advantage, but he and the two other long-shot national Republican candidates might yet be able to attract undeclared voters with some roll-up-the-sleeves, grassroots campaigning in New Hampshire or Iowa and thereby change the conversation.
As the process is thus far playing out, then, despite early concerns, there’s reason to believe New Hampshire and Iowa still have an important role to play in determining the presidential field, at least in some part because they offer long shots the chance to change the national narrative through old-fashioned, face-to-face campaigning.