'Folks: Joe Biden has murdered Iowa.' Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

December 5, 2023   5 mins

In 1988, Dick Gephardt’s mother moved to Iowa. He was running for the Democratic nomination for president and Loreen Gephardt, at the age of 79, wanted to make sure he ate properly in the run up to the Iowa caucuses. She did his laundry too. After he won the contest, he joked that mum —a widow — might stay: “She may never leave Des Moines. There are several gentlemen who have taken a fancy to her. One man asked us if he could please take her to church.”

Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states: that vision. The glory of American small-town quirkiness. Amid the vastness of the United States — sea to shining sea and all that — Iowa and New Hampshire have been, since 1972 when the caucuses became the kick-off event for the presidential race, a tether, a tent peg holding the whole political structure to firm ground, to a place, where people actually live, and think, and talk to each other.

So when you hear that Donald Trump is ahead in the national Republican polls, with all the other Republican hopefuls competing merely for second place in the race for the nomination, remember that not a single vote has yet been cast. And when they start the process on January 15 and 23, Iowa and New Hampshire will make up their own minds, thank you very much. In their own way.

This means talking to the candidates, often with no cameras present. Actually meeting them face to face. It means discovering that Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, may well have fulfilled his promise to visit all 99 counties in the whole of the largely empty state of Iowa — but that, in all of them, he seemed to those who met him, a bit weird. That Vivek Ramaswamy, the libertarian tech bro who has been living full time (without mum) in the capital Des Moines, is hugely polished but maybe too polished to be true. And weird to boot. It means that the black Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina was a nice fellow but little more (he’s dropped out now) And that Doug Burgum, the Governor of North Dakota, might make a passable Agriculture Secretary (though he has also now dropped out).

Alright, I know what you’re thinking: Donald Trump is way ahead in the Iowa polls as well as the nationals. And let’s be clear: ahead in a way that is unprecedented in recent Iowa history. Trump is averaging just under 50% support among Iowa Republicans, with DeSantis and Nikki Haley tied at second but with less that 20% support each. It’s a slam-dunk, isn’t it? As Trump himself is beginning to ask, isn’t it time to end this meaningless process, appoint the big man, and get to work on Biden?

Not so fast. Remember it’s “Iowa and New Hampshire” they are a double act, these reality checks in the snow. Trump will (almost certainly) win Iowa. He would be finished if he did not, given his current poll lead. But even though the Democrat Dick Gephardt — to his mum’s joy — won in 1988, along with Bob Dole for the Republicans. Neither got the final nod: in the end, it was George H. W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis. In more recent times, we did not get president Ted Cruz (who beat Trump in Iowa in 2016) or Mike Huckabee as the final candidate (although he won there in 2008).

Winning is not the thing. These contests — taken together — are about momentum, direction of travel.  The appeal in each state has to be different. You can triumph in one and collapse in the next. Here’s why: just because they are cold and their inhabitants overwhelmingly white, and there aren’t any big cities, doesn’t mean their populations think the same. They are diverse.

New Hampshire is a tougher place than placid, midwestern, God-fearing Iowa. Its population is mobile and transient. A survey for the University of New Hampshire found that only a third of state residents aged 25 and older were born there. It’s a high-income state too (hence the immigration) and one of the least religious in the whole USA. Look at its cross-party support for abortion rights: with 69% saying abortion should be allowed in some circumstances, it’s among the highest state percentages in the nation.

That’s why second place in Iowa this time round matters hugely — if Nikki Haley can beat Ron DeSantis, she is suddenly the huge story, the coming woman. In New Hampshire, she already appears to be in second place. Yes, alright: still 27 points or so behind Trump but stuff happens. Trump has largely ignored all the traditions of campaigning in both states — the town hall meetings, the cosy chats in over-heated diners, and we don’t yet know if this will have an impact. If she were to overtake a faltering Trump in New Hampshire, the next big contest is her home state of South Carolina. She would be motoring: very much in the race and ready to pounce just as Trump begins his most serious court appearances.

And yes, Iowa and New Hampshire are small scale and hokey but they are also tricky to manage. This year, trickier than ever. Because this year a terrible crime has been committed by Joe Biden — or so his many Iowa and New Hampshire critics aver. Something which could blow apart the Republican race.

Folks: Joe Biden has murdered Iowa and New Hampshire. He always hated them; never did well in them during his multiple presidential runs. And now there is blood in the snow. Iowa succumbed to the slaughter without much of a fight as Biden decreed that the caucus will become a write-in for the Dems (literally on postcards), whose results will be revealed in March. It is no longer the kick-off event. It no longer affords the victor momentum. It is no longer a contest worth thinking about.

In New Hampshire though, Biden went for the kill and missed. He attempted to demote it, while taking his name off the ballot. But New Hampshire is still alive: and the tradition that it holds the first primary is so important to local Democrats (it’s actually a state law) that they are now locked in an ill-tempered struggle with the White House which looks likely to cause Biden significant grief at a potentially crucial moment.

New Hampshire Democrats are holding a primary in the teeth of his opposition. And there is a candidate, a congressman called Dean Phillips, who has paid $1,000 dollars to put his name on the ballot. But can Phillips be allowed to win? Should Biden supporters ignore it, write in the president’s name, organise for Mr Phillips to be offered the ambassadorship to Tahiti?

Politico’s Jonathan Martin, a veteran commentator, has a message from history: “Other incumbent presidents have won New Hampshire but still been bruised by the stronger-than-expected showing of their opponents. That list includes, perhaps most famously, Lyndon Johnson in 1968 …. and Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1992, who both had to fend off opponents to their right. None of them survived to win another term.”

President Phillips? Probably not. No: certainly not. But he could still have a real impact: a troubled re-election campaign could yet be made more troubled still. And here is why the Democrats’ difficulties matter in the Republican race: there is not much to do in Iowa; it gets dark early in the winter. If you are an Iowan Democrat, you really do look forward to the jamboree coming to town every four years. So if this time, you know your opinion doesn’t count. So how about… whisper it… becoming a Republican for a night? You can: Iowa has same-day registration rights. Your nice neighbours are already voting for Trump: maybe go with them to the church hall and pay a small dollar sum and take part. Cast a ballot. And remember these are Midwesterners with no sense of wickedness or irony: they will take it seriously and vote not for Trump (who, if they are Democrats they will think is evil), but for someone they can approve of, probably Haley, even if she might go on to win the nomination and beat their man Biden next November.

Might the result of the Iowa Republican caucus be significantly affected by disaffected Dems? It’s not beyond the realms of the possible. Trump in Trouble would be the headline. New Hampshire is suddenly in play. With two fingers raised to New York and LA and indeed to Washington DC: snow-bound, small-town Iowa and New Hampshire gloriously reminding the world, and the Donald, that place matters, and these places live on to fight another day.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer