The quartet of states that lead off the 2016 presidential nominating process is a rather recent creation, having appeared in 2008 for the first time. Each state in the group has come to national prominence at different times. New Hampshire has held its presidential primary for the last 100 years, assuming the role of first-in-the-nation primary for much of that time. The Iowa caucuses joined the early mix in the 1970s, followed by South Carolina’s “first-in-the South” Republican primary in 1980 (with Palmetto State Democrats joining in with a primary of their own a dozen years later). Nevada became a part of the early action in 2008, when the whole configuration won the approval of both national parties. In the competitive nominating contests since then - the 2008 and 2012 fights in the GOP and the 2008 Democratic battle - no candidate has won more than two of the four early states.

Source: The Rhodes Cook Letter, January 2016

The quartet of states that kick off the primary voting in 2016 have drawn their share of criticism. Each of them are on the small side; together they offer only 25 electoral votes. The first two on the calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire, are overwhelmingly white. And the early states, led by Iowa and New Hampshire, have assumed the role of “kingmakers” in setting the tone for the nominating races, to the chagrin of much of the rest of the country.

But the candidates and the media long ago warmed to bucolic Iowa and picturesque New Hampshire as lead-off states, perfect in size for months of face-to-face campaigning. As such, they act as focus groups for the nation, giving candidates of all stripes a long hearing and careful consideration without breaking their campaigns’ piggy banks.

As a testament to both states’ acumen, and their power, the media regularly notes that no candidate since 1992 has gone on to capture their party’s nomination without first winning either the Hawkeye or Granite state. And that year, Bill Clinton successfully portrayed his “up from the rubble” second place finish in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary as a moral victory.

The “February four” has the virtue of touching every region in the country, with the Midwest (Iowa), Northeast (New Hampshire), South (South Carolina) and West (Nevada) all represented.

They test the candidates’ ability to perform in different electoral systems. Iowa and Nevada have caucuses; New Hampshire and South Carolina hold primaries. For years, the rule of thumb has been that the latter tests vote-getting appeal, while the former reflects organizational ability.

That is because the commitment of time is often much greater for a caucus. In Iowa, voters will convene at 7 p.m. sharp on Feb. 1, regardless of the weather, in roughly 1,700 precinct caucuses across the state. Voters cannot just declare their preference and leave. They must sit an hour or more, often through speeches and parliamentary procedures, and sometimes, heated debate, before returning home through the wintry darkness.

Not surprisingly, turnouts are regularly lower for caucuses than primaries, where voters can quickly cast a ballot at their polling place, and leave.

The four early states will also test the candidates’ strength among a variety of voting groups that are important in the nation as a whole. All four have cities of varying sizes. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina boast plenty of rural areas and small towns. Iowa and New Hampshire have academic communities that dot each state. New Hampshire has suburbs along its southern border with Massachusetts.

The table below provides early winners of four early primaries or caucuses, in addition to the ultimate nominee for each party. Democratic nominees have a blue background; Republican nominees have a red background.

Document Citation
Cook, R. (2016). The early presidential events: democratic and republican winners since 1968.
Document ID: rcookltr-1527-98187-2717243
Document URL: