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A Romney win in Iowa wouldn't guarantee him the nomination

Posted by Rob Anderson  December 31, 2011 01:16 PM

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BKS03_USA-CAMPAIGN-ROMNEY_1118_11-357.r.jpgDES MOINES -- What would a Mitt Romney victory in Tuesday's caucuses in Iowa, where he has downplayed expectations, do to his chances in New Hampshire, which his campaign has all but promised a win? A big Hawkeye turnout for Romney should, by conventional measures, give him the "Big Mo" -- momentum -- to turn his large poll leads in New Hampshire into a Granite State rout. But, of course, that very phrase, "Big Mo," was invented by George H.W. Bush to describe his Iowa caucus victory over Ronald Reagan in 1980 -- and he went on to lose New Hampshire.

In fact, history suggests that relatively few non-incumbents have been able to score victories in both of the first two nominating contests. That's partly because New Hampshire and Iowa have different electorates, but also, perhaps, for another reason: New Hampshire voters hate the Iowa caucuses, and still resent their intrusion on the Granite State's "first in the nation" status.

"Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents," is still heard among dedicated primary voters from Nashua to Berlin, even though recent evidence (Clinton in 2008, McCain in 2000, Tsongas in 1992) shows that New Hampshire has missed the boat on the last three presidents.

But Iowa's record isn't stellar, either, and in fact the two states seem to work as a tag team, winnowing the field to two contenders. When Iowa opts for the conventional, preseason frontrunner (Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984, Republican George W. Bush in 2000), New Hampshire tends to respond with a tidal-wave victory for a lesser-known challenger, Gary Hart in '84 and John McCain in '00. But when Iowa goes out on a limb for a back-of-the-pack contender (Mike Huckabee in '08, Bob Dole in '88, George H.W. Bush in '80), New Hampshire seems to pride itself on restoring the original frontrunner. The same thing happened on the Democratic side in '08, when Barack Obama's big Iowa win was followed by a shocking loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, though Obama eventually prevailed.

What does this mean for Romney? Perhaps that all the back-slapping and celebration that might occur in Des Moines on Tuesday will be followed with a disconcerting bump in the polls for someone else (Jon Huntsman?) in New Hampshire. Voters in New Hampshire really, really don't like validating Iowa's choices.

Of course, Romney is in an unusually commanding position in New Hampshire, having invoked his longtime New Hampshire summer place (which he mysteriously downplayed in 2008) as a virtual home-state link this time around. And he can take solace in knowing that his fellow Bay Stater, John Kerry, actually managed the feat of winning both Iowa and New Hampshire as recently as 2004. Of course, Kerry was helped by the fact that his main New Hampshire opponent, Howard Dean, hobbled himself with his strange, baying-at-the-moon concession speech in Des Moines. Memo to Romney's opponents: Don't scream about a loss on Tuesday. You may survive to fight another day.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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