WASHINGTON – Iowa and New Hampshire, combined, have 4.2 million people — just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Yet Democratic presidential candidates spend months and millions of dollars each presidential cycle in those two states before the Iowa caucuses (search) and New Hampshire primary (search), the first events in the party's nomination process.
Does it make sense to spend so much time and money to reach the same small fraction of the electorate each election? Should other states get a chance to hold the first contests in an election cycle?
A Democratic commission is examining those questions and other aspects of the primary calendar this weekend in Washington.
Iowa and New Hampshire have outmaneuvered critics to hold their leadoff positions during the last quarter-century. Other states have demonstrated increasing frustration by crowding closer to the start of the calendar.
"States have been moving up toward early March, looking for their place in the sun," said Rep. David Price of North Carolina, co-chairman of the commission.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter used the Iowa caucuses as a launching pad for his underdog candidacy and followed with a win in New Hampshire. In 2004, John Kerry (search) delivered a one-two punch to one-time front-runner Howard Dean (search) with victories in both states.
Both states have defended their role by emphasizing the importance of retail politics — door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning — in small states.
"One of the things that is so effective about a state like New Hampshire going early is having a highly engaged electorate," said Jeanne Shaheen, a commission member and former governor of the state. New Hampshire has a law requiring that its presidential primary be held before any similar contest in another state.
"It would be just horrible to lose the retail politics you have in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Roxanne Conlin, an attorney from Des Moines, Iowa, and a commission member.
Alexis Herman, the other co-chair of the commission, said the group will consider how to get a more racially diverse mix of early states while keeping the emphasis on retail politics. She also said states should avoid overlapping each other, scheduling all of their primaries on the same day.
Some members acknowledge making widespread changes could be difficult because they require legislative action in some states and the national party has little enforcement power.
The most vocal critic of allowing Iowa and New Hampshire to lead off every time is Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, whose strong complaints before the last election led to Saturday's commission meeting.
"Different states with different interests have people who feel left out," Levin said. "Should we always have the same two states with a disproportionate impact?"
Several commission members from Western states said states in their region are increasingly competitive for Democrats and should play a bigger role.
The commission plans to meet again May 14 at a site to be determined.