Are the early primary states overhyped?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Political experts have made Iowa and New Hampshire focal points of election talk, but there's no guarantee they'll be decisive
  • Candidates who do well may fade as the primaries shift to larger states, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Ever since Jimmy Carter rocked the political world in 1976 by using his victory in the Iowa caucuses to catapult himself into the front-runner in the Democratic primaries, political experts have made Iowa and New Hampshire the focal point of their election discussions.

And candidates have made the same calculation. Last week, Jeb Bush's campaign changed his strategy but kept a focus on the early voting states by canceling TV ads and sending scores of campaign workers from the campaign's Miami headquarters to Iowa, New Hampshire and two other early states.
But the experts and the candidates should be cautious about putting too much stock into Iowa and New Hampshire. After all, while these are the two big attention-grabbing contests, there is a sizable history of candidates who were victorious in one of these states and enjoyed all the buzz that came with it, yet proved unable to secure the party nomination.
    The political establishment has often exaggerated the power of the "momentum" that comes from these contests, ignoring the list of losers who also enjoyed those moments.

    Iowa enthusiasm can fade

    Iowa has a long list of candidates who took the nation by storm but didn't go on to get the nomination. George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan by about 2 percentage points in 1980, but Reagan would become the Republican choice, while in 1988 Bob Dole and Pat Robertson (second place) upset Bush, who went on to win the nomination.
    In 2008, Republican John McCain tied with Fred Thompson for third place, coming in behind Mitt Romney and the victor, Mike Huckabee; while in 2012, Rick Santorum had a strong showing but didn't have much traction in the coming months.
    On the Democratic side in 1988, Michael Dukakis came in third place to Richard Gephardt, who seemed to be a much more natural fit for the part, and Paul Simon, a less-than-energetic candidate. A few years later, in 1992, Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas bested Bill Clinton in Iowa.
    "Tonight you fired the shot that is going to be heard around this country and around the world," Harkin, a favorite son of Iowa, boasted on the night of his victory. It didn't turn out to be a good prediction. Clinton would of course go on to be the nominee and enjoy a two-term presidency.

    Erratic results in New Hampshire

    New Hampshire can also be erratic, despite its long list of nominees. In 1952 and 1956, Sen. Estes Kefauver won the primary, even though the party bosses would give the nomination to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. In 1972, front-runner Edmund Muskie won in Iowa and New Hampshire, but George McGovern's strong second-place showing was enough to make him highly competitive.
    When Muskie dropped out after false allegations of disparaging remarks he had made about French Canadians, McGovern would go on to secure the nomination. Gary Hart celebrated after winning the New Hampshire primary in 1984 but lost to former Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, who convinced the electorate that his opponent had no substance and that he would best represent traditional Democratic interests. (Mondale famously described Hart by quoting a fast-food commercial in which an elderly woman asked, "Where's the beef?"). Hart's future political career would be torpedoed by a sex scandal involving Donna Rice.
    After doing well in Iowa in 1992, Tsongas came out on top again in New Hampshire as the "New Democrat" in the campaign, though he wouldn't last much longer.
    In 1996, right-wing cultural warrior Pat Buchanan, who had shocked Bush with a strong second-place finish four years earlier, this time defeated Dole. "We have shown that ideals," Buchanan said, "and convictions and passion and fire and energy can beat all the money they've got." And of course Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama in 2008, but Obama out-organized her in the rest of the race.

    Money and momentum

    It is true that since 1980, almost every nominee has won one of these states. But in a large and crowded field like we have today within the GOP, it will be hard to glean from either state's results what victories there will ultimately mean. The competition in the bigger and more diverse states' contests will have much more of an impact on the overall delegate count and provide a much better indication of who has the strongest candidacy for a general election.
    The states are so distinct in terms of their composition and independent politics that they don't really tell us a great deal about how the candidates will do in the subsequent events. In Iowa, the overwhelmingly white, rural and evangelical presence in the Republican caucuses among voters is not very reflective of what candidates will face down the road. New Hampshire, which is small, white, old and very independent (independents can choose what primary to vote in), doesn't tell us very much about what will happen in the bigger primary states.
    Nor is the "momentum" that one victory brings as powerful as we think, particularly in an age with so much campaign money and advertising. It is quite possible for a candidate to overcome early losses with a blitz of media coverage. We have seen the wild fluctuations in popularity that candidates have already experienced in the early parts of the campaign.
    In many ways, this year, the early caucus and primary states are much more important as a winnowing effect, given the jam-packed field in the GOP. Even if Ted Cruz wins the Iowa caucus and Donald Trump wins New Hampshire, what might be more relevant is which of the so-called establishment candidates (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie) do poorly in these campaigns so that they lose the ability to sustain their campaigns. This could turn out to be much more important over the long term than who is actually the victor in two small states.
    So let's watch the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire with a close eye. But with an eye on history, we should realize that the victor might not be the person who will get to celebrate at the convention.