Primary decision makers: Earliest voters may not look like Illinois folks, but they're keeping it real

Lauren FitzPatrick

Click here for a pdf of the Illinois chart.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- There’s Hillary, Ron. Oh, and John, too.

“I forgot about John,” said Mary Dunley, of former North Carolina Sen. Edwards, ticking off the names as if they were party guests instead of the presidential candidates who’ve personally crossed her path to ask for her vote and answer her questions.

“I guess we don’t realize maybe how lucky we are,” Dunley said.

But meeting candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire isn’t so lucky as it is just typical. Since these tiny states get first say on who’s propelled out of the pack, they get a ton of attention by mail, ringing telephones and in person at breakfast joints, colleges, state fairs and even people’s homes.

And Dunley’s first-name treatment of the next American president is why you might trust this 72-year-old white, registered-Republican retiree living in Des Moines to make the right call among a crowded GOP field. Iowans and New Hampshirites – a mere 4 million of them across both states – say they’ve learned through their tradition of early voting how to pick the message out of the campaign hoopla – and how to push the hopefuls out of their carefully crafted bubbles.

Campaigning is more intense than usual since this race to the White House remains wide open, with zero presidential or vice presidential incumbents for the first time since 1952.

The two teeny states are among the whitest in the nation, with few immigrants or minorities.

•    Iowa is 3 million strong, only about 1 percent of the nation’s population. New Hampshire’s population is 1.2 million. No city is bigger than 200,000 people.

•    Iowa’s livelihood stems from farming and agricultural manufacturing; New Hampshire has one of the highest state per capita income levels.

•    Iowa boasts one of the highest high school graduation rates; both states have a higher than average home ownership rate.

•    Iowa remains a swing state; New Hampshire’s ideology breaks down along national lines with about 35 percent conservatives, 30 percent moderates and about 25 percent liberals.

“You could blame us for not being representative of the country, but then, who is?” asked Dale S. Kuehne, a political science professor at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, N.H.

Illinois is more diverse than the early voting states, with more than double the non-native English speakers, too.  And it’s slightly less white than the country as a whole. Its 12 million people represent nearly 10 times the residents of New Hampshire, and more than four times as many as Iowa. The state’s average annual income is about $3,000 more than the national average, lower than New Hampshire but higher than Iowa.

Jealous of the attention bestowed on the earliest voters, other states are inching closer to Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses, and New Hampshire’s primary on Jan. 8.

To try to get more of a say, the Land of Lincoln bumped up its primary date about a month to Feb. 5, now known as “Super Duper Tuesday,” since some 20 states now will cast primary ballots. Earlier means Illinois voters may choose from a full range of candidates – and maybe throw a bone to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- but it hasn’t translated into more campaign visits.

Why should the early voters keep the privilege – and the election season income influx -- just because they’ve historically gone first? So what if New Hampshire reserved its prime spot in its constitution?

Precisely because Iowa and New Hampshire are small, according to political scientists in both states, saying candidates can theoretically meet every single person who will vote or caucus.

Iowans aren’t intimidated by power or prestige, said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. They prefer first names to fancy titles.

“If our state senator decided to up and say, call me senator, he’d be slapped down so fast. He’s Joe or Bob. That’s just the Iowa way,” Redlawsk said. “But I think it works well when you’re trying to assess people who spend most of their life in a bubble.

“You come to Iowa, and they won’t leave you alone. You can’t come to Iowa and hold events and not allow questions to be asked. Fred Thompson tried it.”

New Hampshirites are accustomed to being governed by friends and neighbors who volunteer to serve as state reps, Kuehne said. Constituents frequently call their reps at home and stop them in the street when they want a straight answer – and the $100 salary is hardly an incentive to run for office, he said.

“We’re used to talking to people face to face; we’re used to being persuaded not by television ads but by conversation, so when the candidates come, same political culture gets translated,” Kuehne said. “One of the reasons why people want to take the primary away from us – they can say we’re not representative of the country and all that kind of stuff - the fundamental reality is you can’t buy the election in New Hampshire, and it scares (campaign leaders).”

Becca Swartz, 19, has been reading about the candidates. And she’s gone to see Barack Obama a few times on Cornell College’s [http://cornellcollege.edu] campus, too, before caucusing for the first time in Bettendorf, Iowa, her hometown.

“We’re willing to be informed, and we’re open-minded, and that’s why we are so important,” Swartz said of her fellow Iowans, echoing the sentiment of diners from Newton, Iowa, teachers from Iowa City, and waitresses in Portsmouth, N.H. “We are willing to weigh the issues and look critically and make informed decisions on who we’re going to vote for.”

But only about 6 percent of voting-age Iowans caucused in 2004 – a state low - and 29 percent voted in New Hampshire, a year when Republican incumbent George W. Bush ran unopposed in the primary, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, compared with 7 percent and 44 percent in 2000. Nationwide, about 20 percent of eligible American voters turned out in the 2004 primary; 26.4 percent showed up to the polls four years earlier.

Still, vying for power by jamming primaries together could only worsen the situation for the rest of us, Redlawsk said. Imagine airport tarmac rallies, TV blitzes and billboards as the only ways to get to see what makes a candidate tick.

“Anything that doesn’t … make the candidates get out of the bubble is going to result in 30-second television ad, fly into the airport, fly out campaigns,” he said. “When you need to collect 10 million votes rather than 40,000 votes, that’s what you do.

“The reality in Iowa is that a candidate can literally shake the hand of everybody who will caucus for him, and so they’re motivated to do that. They can’t do that in Illinois.”

That’s why Kuehne would order the primaries by smallest states to largest, letting delegate-rich places like New York, California and Texas head up the rear.

Meanwhile, candidates can and will call everyone in New Hampshire, Mary Ellen Ianzito learned the hard way during dinner.

Eating breakfast with friends at the Merrimack, a Manchester diner known for its frequent campaign stops, the retired teacher said her phone will ring five, six times a night.

“It’s a big responsibility we have in New Hampshire,” added her friend Louise Forseze. “I just wish it wouldn’t last so long.”

At a nearby table, Ben Clark, a 29-year-old Deerfield, Mass., fruit farmer, said moving that kind of power to his state would be more than he’s willing to put up with. “I’d rather not have the whole frenzy.

“Then they’ll all come to Massachusetts,” he lamented.

Lauren FitzPatrick is a national reporter for GateHouse News Service. Contact her at lfitzpatrick@gatehousemedia.com.