Collapsible Candidates from Iowa to New Hampshire

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

January 9, 2008

After his first place finish in Iowa, which was supposed to propel him to a New Hampshire victory, “change” is probably a word Barack Obama does not like as much anymore. But, his support did not really change much between these two elections. He won 38 percent of Iowa’s delegates and 36 percent of New Hampshire’s vote. It was Hillary Clinton and John McCain who were the big change candidates.

What happens when a presidential candidate that does well in a primary or caucus state, does not do so well in the next? The dynamic of the presidential election can swiftly and stunningly change, as it did in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

How Barack Obama wishes John Edwards showed up in New Hampshire.

Edwards was awarded 30 percent of Iowa’s delegates, barely denying Clinton a second place finish. He finished a distant third in New Hampshire, receiving only 17 percent of the vote. There are strong indications that a shift among his supporters helped propel Hillary Clinton to her New Hampshire victory.

According to the exit polls, Edwards did 8 percentage points worse in New Hampshire among women, while Clinton did 16 percent better. Obama’s support was virtually identical, dropping a statistically insignificant 1 percentage point.

Obama’s support among young people remained strong, if slightly increasing among 18-24 and 30-39 year olds. Clinton’s support remained strong and slightly increased among those 65 and older. Edwards won Iowa’s middle-aged voters, age 40-64, but it was Clinton who decisively won this coveted age demographic in New Hampshire. And where these people were 38 percent Iowa caucus attendees, they were 54 percent of New Hampshire voters. (To understand why their turnout increased, see my analysis of Iowa’s turnout .)

Moving forward, the generational war is still a strong dynamic in the Democratic race, as evident in the candidates’ speech styles following the election results. In Iowa, Clinton was flanked by the ghosts of the Clinton administration. In New Hampshire, she shared the stage with a sea of young voters. In Iowa, Obama spoke of change, a message that resonates with younger people who are not part of the establishment. In New Hampshire his slogan was a message that echoes the can-do spirit of the greatest generation, “Yes, we can!”

In the days between Iowa and New Hampshire, Edwards spoke about how he wanted the election to become a two-way race. One should be careful with what one wishes for. Edwards and Clinton are vying for the same support base, that when united can defeat Obama, at least in New Hampshire. In the short-term, Obama most needs Edwards to do better so that support can continue to be divided.

Among Republicans, John McCain recreated his magic of eight years ago and bounced back strong from a poor Iowa showing to win New Hampshire.

The Iowa and New Hampshire electorates are so different it is difficult to compare them. In Iowa, Evangelical Christians were 60 percent of the electorate, while in New Hampshire, they were only 23 percent. Mike Huckabee’s move from first in Iowa to third in New Hampshire can be clearly attributed to the shrinking of his base. His collapse paved the way for a new winner to emerge.

It is thus tempting to attribute McCain’s victory solely to the different electorates, but he still had to defeat Mitt Romney to win New Hampshire.

According to the exit polls, the battle between McCain and Romney is a referendum on the Bush administration. Surprisingly, McCain, who has tried to rebuild bridges with the Bush establishment since his defeat in the 2000 presidential election, is still seen as the outsider and agent of change by voters participating in the Republican nomination process.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain drew his support from those who said they are angry or dissatisfied with the Bush administration. Romney drew his support from those who said they are enthusiastic or satisfied. Not surprisingly, McCain is also drawing more support from self-described Independents and Romney from Republicans.

The candidates seem to understand this dynamic, too, as they gave their speeches following the election results. In a contrived bit of acting, Romney showed up on stage without a podium and shoved a prepared speech back into his pocket (if he had needed a podium, his advance team would have provided it). He appeared relaxed, delivering his speech in a personable style reminiscent of Huckabee, who is competing with Romney for those who support Bush. But he also seemed to be reaching out to Independents with a message of change. In stark contrast, McCain delivered a carefully written, almost sedate speech designed to reassure Republicans of his conservative credentials.

This three-way dynamic between Huckabee, McCain, and Romney should prove fascinating as the Republican nomination process moves forward. Where Evangelicals are strong, Huckabee should do well. Where they are not, the rules governing if Independents can or cannot participate will dictate how McCain and Romney do. And we have yet to see regional candidates like Fred Thompson have their day in the sun. And then there is Rudy Giuliani, who is lying in wait in the larger states where his name recognition should give him a significant boost over the other candidates. All of this points to an extended campaign among Republicans.

Michael P. McDonald is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He studies voter turnout and is a consultant to the national exit poll organization.