Study: Iowa, N.H. Have More Impact On Campaigns

Two economics professors who set out to measure the influence of early primaries and caucuses on the electoral process found that states like Iowa and New Hampshire may have a disproportionate influence on who gets elected. They write that the "overweighting of early voters ... represents a deviation from the democratic ideal of 'one person, one vote.'" Michele Norris talks with Brian Knight, associate professor of economics at Brown University, about his paper, co-written with Nathan Schiff. It's called "Momentum and Learning in Presidential Primaries."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In addition to Mitt Romney, most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have been spending some quality time in New Hampshire these days, Iowa too. That's because the early primary contests there have a big impact on electoral politics.

Brian Knight of Brown University was one of two economists who documented just how big.

Professor BRIAN KNIGHT (Economics, Brown University): Surprising wins in early states tended to lead to sizeable increases in support among late voters. And this leads early voters to have up to five times the influence of Super Tuesday voters in terms of selecting the candidates that are eventually going to run for president.

NORRIS: Up to five times the influence on picking a candidate. So what in turn does that say about how these early states influence or distort political debate and even national policy? For instance, do these relatively rural states drown out issues important to urban voters?

David Leonhardt wrote about this for The New York Times this week, and he joins us now to discuss it more.

David, welcome back to the program.

Mr. DAVID LEONHARDT (Columnist, The New York Times): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Explain how the calendar shapes economic policies. Is this because New Hampshire and Iowa have big influence on national politics but don't have any big major metropolitan centers?

Mr. LEONHARDT: That's right. And it's not just New Hampshire and Iowa, it's also Nevada and South Carolina, which go third and fourth. People think of Las Vegas as being a major city, and it's not small, but it's only the 30th largest metro area. And so we have these four states that play an enormous role, and they don't look like the rest of the country. They don't have any major metropolitan area. Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular, are quite a bit older than average. They have fewer people who lack health insurance.

And I'm not suggesting that Iowa and New Hampshire are worse than the rest of the country. They're not. They're not better or worse. But it just seems to me misplaced the idea that every four years we pick the same unrepresentative states to hold these very influential votes in.

NORRIS: David, give us examples of issues that received outsized attention and those that are overlooked because of this Iowa-New Hampshire tilt.

Mr. LEONHARDT: The classic example of something that receives outsized attention is ethanol. We have this policy of ethanol subsidies. It has had relatively little effect on carbon emissions, but it has driven up food prices. And that exists in significant part because of the desire of candidates to pander to the Iowa corn industry.

But it's not just that. Another peer-reviewed study that looked at this found that early states that vote for the winner tend to get more than you would expect in terms of federal spending. So you can even think of it as part of being the deficit problem. And then, of course, on the flip, there are all sorts of issues that don't get attention that would if the primaries and caucuses in the early weeks were held elsewhere.

NORRIS: Things like light rail, mass transit, education...

Mr. LEONHARDT: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...since the education systems in both of these states that we're talking about - and even into Nevada and perhaps less so in South Carolina, but certainly in Iowa and New Hampshire, the education systems are pretty good.

Mr. LEONHARDT: That's right. I think transportation is a particularly important example of it. The fact is is that in major metropolitan areas - in Atlanta, in New York, in Chicago - traffic is a major quality-of-life issue. It is a major economic issue because of all the lost productivity of workers and of goods that sit on the highways. That is just not something that comes up at all in these early state discussions.

I think education is another good example. Obviously, there are schools in Iowa and New Hampshire, and they are far from perfect, but I think education would be a different kind of issue if it were part of it.

NORRIS: Well, there are changes in the calendar that are currently under discussion. We don't know how this is all going to wind up. But if, say, Florida moved up on the calendar, how might that potentially change this discussion and the resulting policy?

Mr. LEONHARDT: I think it would be great if Florida moved up in the calendar. Florida is different from these other states in a whole variety of ways, including the fact that it's urban, including the fact that it really did have a real estate bust, which Nevada did as well.

But what I find lacking in a lot of these discussions is they leave Iowa and New Hampshire's one and two position as an issue that can't even be discussed. And I think we should broaden the discussion.

NORRIS: You're going to have the strange experience of me quoting your own column to you here on the radio. You come to an interesting conclusion. You say that Iowa and New Hampshire have dominated the nominating process for so long that it's easy to think of their role as natural. But you say, quote, "It is not natural. It's undemocratic. In fact, it is unfair to voters in the other 48 states."

Strong words.

Mr. LEONHARDT: I think if you were going to design a system that, A, was meant to be the fairest and the most democratic, you would never give 1 percent of the population such a huge recurring, permanent sway over this process. And in particular, it's not just about fairness. It's also about developing policies that make the most sense for this country.

The 25 biggest metropolitan areas alone account for 42 percent of our population and 52 percent of our economic output. To say that they will never have a role in the early stages of the primaries strikes me as a policy that's going to lead to policies that aren't maximally designed for economic growth if we're ignoring a lot of the issues that matter for more than half of the economy.

David Leonhardt, always good to talk to you. Thanks for coming back.

Mr. LEONHARDT: Thanks for having me, Michele.

NORRIS: That's David Leonhardt. He's a columnist for The New York Times.

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