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The Dwindling Legitimacy of N.H. and Iowa

I'll leave it to others to prognosticate on what the Union Leader's endorsement of Newt Gingrich means for the New Hampshire primary. (Two words suffice as caution against putting undue weight on the Union Leader's prowess in picking winners: Pete Dupont.) But the endorsement offers more evidence for something I've been mulling for several weeks now: the declining legitimacy of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

There was a time not so long ago when I happily defended the prerogative of Iowa and New Hampshire to claim a hugely outsized role in picking presidential nominees. Sure, the two states were wildly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, and sure, their leaders could be awfully curmudgeonly in preserving their position (yes, I'm looking at you, Bill Gardner.) But I'd seen enough of the traditions up close -- starting in 2000, when I covered the New Hampshire primary for the Concord Monitor -- to know that the states' boosters were not just blowing midwinter smoke: voters in the states really did take their job seriously, and demanded from the candidates a level of personal interaction and specificity on the issues that they would be unlikely to provide in bigger states with less of a sense of entitlement and responsibility.

This year's Republican campaign is seriously eroding that argument. By any count, the candidates are spending less time in Iowa and New Hampshire than they have in years. And what time they are spending in the states is falling well short of the intimacy the states pride themselves on -- Mitt Romney, for instance, has spent plenty of time (and money) in New Hampshire, but he is sharply limiting questions and unscripted interactions with voters. The candidates who are taking the most traditional approach to the two states -- Rick Santorum in Iowa, Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire -- have very little to show for it. Instead, polls in the two states show candidates rising and falling based on the same debate-driven, cable-driven popularity trends that are determining the national polls.

The Concord Monitor captured the new dynamic in a recent article written in the tone of worry and regret usually reserved for laments about global warming's effect on leaf-peeping and ski resorts.

Mike Dennehy recalls trying to pinpoint an answer over lunch with a reporter in recent weeks. "You can't help but see it," agreed the former top adviser to John McCain. Same with former House speaker Donna Sytek. "Have you noticed the dearth of bumper stickers? Usually cars are covered with them," she said.
Call it a snoozefest. The one where nobody really showed up. The end of the press-the-flesh New Hampshire primary as we've known it. For whatever reason, this Republican presidential race lacks the intensity of years past and, with less than two months until Election Day, this field would have to slam into hurry-up mode to shower the Granite State with the kind of attention voters have come to expect.
Herman Cain, running second in New Hampshire polls from last month, has made nine stops here over five days since June, according to data kept by The Washington Post. Newt Gingrich, surging in national polls over the last week, has held 14 events here over nine days in that time. Ron Paul, consistently running third, has held 26 events over 13 days in these last five months.
"It used to be that you would be trying to round up a bunch of people to come to your church supper. It used to be a lot more retail" politics, said Sytek, the former chairwoman of the state GOP.

And now the Union Leader -- as fierce a protector of New Hampshire's pregorative as there is -- endorses Newt, who so far this campaign has embodied the national media approach to the 2012 primaries, eschewing until very recently any serious grass-roots effort in the early states. A few weeks ago, I asked Fran Wendelboe, a leading social conservative activist in New Hampshire, who in her circle was supporting Gingrich. She wracked her brain and couldn't think of a single person. A couple weeks later, Gingrich at least has a handful of paid staffers in the Granite State and just the other day Wendelboe, who hasn't endorsed anyone yet, spotted a lone roadside sign for Gingrich. "I don't know what the hell he was doing for the past three months, but he's ramping up," she said today.

Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who is now on the national Republican National Committee, acknowledged that the candidates so far have been disappointing in their level of investment in the state, but predicted that things could yet pick up, and that candidates would, come January 10, be rewarded for their old-fashioned efforts on the ground. "Organization is going to make a huge difference in the end -- it's just not showing up yet," he said.

It's also possible that what we're seeing in Iowa and New Hampshire this year is just a one-off fluke -- after all, television and debates mattered plenty in 2008, but that cycle, just four years ago, also witnessed some of the most impressive on-the-ground early-state showdowns in decades, with Obama's grassroots network facing off against Hillary and John Edwards in Iowa, Mike Huckabee's home-schoolers making a late surge against Romney's paid-for supporters in Iowa, and John McCain stumping through New Hampshire just as he had eight years earlier.

Such was the intensity of early-state campaigning in late 2007 that I was justified in embarking on a harebrained venture: moving to an apartment in Concord on Thanksgiving weekend with my wife and two young sons (one only a month old) and a cat to cover the final seven weeks of the primary campaign. This time around, such an effort would make zero sense. We'll have to see whether anything in the next two months justifies a reassessment, but right now, it's hard not to wonder whether we're finally seeing the beginning of the end of a tradition.