To understand how the presidential primary process actually works, you have to understand the major media budgets for covering the 2012 campaign.
There are four parts to those budgets:
(1) pre-primary coverage,
(2) caucus and primary coverage,
(3) convention coverage, and
(4) general election and debate coverage.
What happened in the past and what will happen again in 2012 is that the media (broadly speaking) blow through their pre-primary budgets quickly, overspend on early caucus and primary coverage, and then cut back sharply to conserve funds for convention and general election coverage.
The net result is that the early state caucuses and primaries are disproportionately important to determining the eventual nominee and that anyone who does not finish first or second in the Iowa caucuses and/or the New Hampshire primary is probably not going to command media coverage thereafter.
Iowa (straw poll/caucuses), New Hampshire (primary), Nevada (caucuses) and South Carolina (primary), in that order (Nevada and South Carolina are on the same day), are the four states that cull the field down to two.
In 2008, roughly 120,000 people participated in the Iowa caucuses. Roughly 235,00 people voted in the New Hampshire primary. Roughly 445,000 people voted in the South Carolina primary. Less than 75,000 people participated in the Nevada caucuses.
When Sen. John McCain won the South Carolina primary in 2008 (after winning the New Hampshire primary) he essentially won the GOP presidential nomination. Coverage of his opponents diminished (and in some cases evaporated). By the time of the first “Super Tuesday,” McCain had been nominated by the media and coverage shifted almost exclusively to the battle between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
This time, of course, there will be no Democratic primary battle (President Obama is widely expected to run unopposed for his party’s nomination), so theoretically, there should be more money for more coverage of the GOP race. But there won’t be. Major news outlets are under relentless pressure to cut costs. Cutting the costs of covering the GOP primary race will offer a target-rich environment.
What this all means is that 10 or 12 or 14 men and women will be competing for the support of less than a million voters in four states. If they have a lot of money, they can focus that money on the first two states (Iowa and New Hampshire) and gamble that strong showings there will catapult them through the remainder of the primary calendar.
For candidates like Jon Huntsman, the US Ambassador to China and former governor of Utah, winning in Iowa and New Hampshire (or doing very well in both states) is the only strategy. As it happens, his father invented the “clamshell,” the packaging that Big Macs come in, so presumably Amb. Huntsman can devote $75 million of his family’s fortune toward being competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he gets 33 per cent of the Iowa vote, he probably wins. So the rough maths might be: spend $40 million to get 42,000 Iowans to vote his way. That’s doable.
For candidates like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, the game is somewhat more complicated. Huckabee won Iowa the last time with 34 per cent of the vote, beating Romney (who had vastly outspent him) by nine percentage points. This time, Huckabee will be expected to win Iowa. If he loses to Sarah Palin or Jon Hunstman or Tim Pawlenty, his campaign is effectively over. If he wins Iowa again, he will have dispatched with Palin and be well-positioned to coalesce social conservatives around his candidacy.
Former Governor Romney must decide whether to compete in Iowa at all. Last time, his loss there to Huckabee effectively ruined his chances of winning New Hampshire (McCain won it). If Romney loses New Hampshire this time, he’s finished. So, on paper, it would seem an easy decision. Build a fortress in New Hampshire. Don’t compete in Iowa. And take on whoever emerges from Des Moines mano-a-mano in his almost-home state (Romney owns a vacation home there).
The problem with that scenario is that the national political press corps essentially decamps to Iowa two or three weeks prior to the Iowa caucuses. If a candidate is not part of the “news mix” in Iowa, he or she essentially goes dark for those two or three weeks. Two or three weeks of “no coverage” has never been a winning strategy (viz: the Giuliani for President campaign, 2008). So skipping Iowa, for the Romney team, is risky business indeed.
Sarah Palin, meanwhile, has been focusing her early efforts on Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada. She has had no presence, at all, in New Hampshire. That’s fine, so long as she wins Iowa. If she loses Iowa and then crashes in New Hampshire, her campaign will be over immediately thereafter. Perceived front-runners who lose their first two contests don’t go on. They go home.
Meanwhile, the others (like Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Jim DeMint, et alia) have no choice but to compete (as hard as they can) in Iowa and New Hampshire. No one knows who they are. They don’t have enough money to get nationally known through paid media. The only way they get into the “top tier” of GOP presidential candidates is by winning or doing very well in the first two states. There is no other path to power.
Which is why, in our coverage of the upcoming 2012 presidential campaign, you will notice a considerable tilt toward what is happening in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s not a bias. It’s just the way the game is played.
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