People (well, maybe not normal people, but people in the political arena) have been talking about the 2016 presidential campaign since pretty much the day after the 2012 elections. That is arguably insane and certainly troublesome for political party brass who would prefer that the process be shorter so they can coalesce around one candidate to face the other party in the general election.
The Republican National Committee raised the issue in its very thorough report on the state of the party, saying the drawn-out primary process leaves the eventual winner in a weaker position. That was clearly true for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who not only spent millions fending off primary opponents, but had to wait until the end of August to start spending general election campaign cash.
As part of the quadrennial re-think, the validity of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary has again come under question. Is it fair, or even best for the parties, for these two small states to have such amplified importance? Richard Cohen, in the Washington Post, argues not, noting that neither state's GOP rank-and-file is representative of the party as a whole.
That's true, but that's true in many states, especially nowadays, when people are self-selecting their communities and making states more polarized. And if anything, the unrepresentative nature of both states is an argument for, not against, their special status.
Iowa does not often produce the winner, as Cohen correctly reports. But it gives people a chance in a political world where money, top-notch consultants and special interest influence are dominant. It gave Barack Obama a chance in 2008, when many assumed that the better-known and more-experienced Hillary Clinton would win the day and the year. It gave former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee a chance—not one that won him the nomination, but one which kept Huckabee and the issues he raised in the national conversation.
New Hampshire, too, is special because its residents will take a look at anyone who shows up to run. They hate the idea of front-runnerism, and defiantly make their choices with no regard for who the media or political professional class tells them is the strongest pick for the fall. New Hampshire once held the distinction of picking presidents—before Bill Clinton, no one had been elected to the Oval Office without having won the New Hampshire primary. That is no longer true, and that's an argument for letting the Granite State keep its early status, since one can't argue it has an exaggerated impact.
The most important reason, though, to keep Iowa and New Hampshire where they are in the primary calendar is money—or rather, the lack of it. The reason more candidates have a chance in those states is that it is impossible to buy an election there. There simply isn't enough air time to buy or newspaper ads to take out. Small states require shoe-leather campaigning, a standard that is far better for picking a leader than campaign cash. Hold the early primary in California or New York, and the race will descend even further to a place where money picks the winner.
The GOP's protracted primary may indeed have made it harder for Romney. But that is just a symptom. Had the party been more unified, Romney (or another candidate) would have sewn things up early. Changing the schedule doesn't heal the rifts inside either political party.