Why Iowa & New Hampshire Don’t Actually Matter As Much As You Think

The Iowa Caucus is just a week away, and the New Hampshire primary comes soon after that. Presidential candidates from both parties are campaigning vigorously in the two states in hopes of chalking up an early win — but maybe they shouldn't be. Despite the outsized attention they get, Iowa and New Hampshire aren't nearly as important as you might think in presidential primaries, and 2016 is no exception.

As Bill Clinton might say, it's a matter of arithmetic. Party nominations ultimately come down to one thing, and one thing only: delegates. There are a lot of complexities to how delegates work, but the basic idea is very simple: When you win a state, you get a certain number of delegates based on the state's population. Once you win enough delegates, you've won the nomination. They're kind of like electoral votes, except for a primary election instead of a general election.

The thing is that Iowa and New Hampshire, for all of the hoopla, aren't actually worth a whole helluva lot of delegates. A Democrat who wins Iowa, for example, will still only have roughly 2 percent of the total delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. Another way of looking at this is that whichever Democrat wins in the Hawkeye State still has 98 percent of the battle ahead of them.

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The situation is even more extreme in New Hampshire, which awards even fewer delegates than Iowa. If John Kasich were to pull off an upset and win New Hampshire, he'd receive a lot of very nice press coverage. He'd also have only 1.6 percent of the delegates he'd need to become the eventual Republican nominee.

The actual rules that govern how delegates work are ridiculously complicated — we haven't even talked about superdelegates, for example — and differ from state to state and between the two major parties. The point, though, is that winning either state (or both) only gets a candidate very incrementally closer to winning their party's nomination. In that sense, victories in either state are more symbolic than anything else.

By contrast, look at California. Just about nobody is talking about the California primary now, but it will do far more to determine the eventual nominees than Iowa and New Hampshire combined. If Hillary Clinton wins the California primary, for example, she'll have almost 20 percent of the total delegates she needs to win the nomination. That makes the Golden State exponentially more important than Iowa or New Hampshire. Other states with large populations — Ohio and Florida especially — also dwarf the early voting states when it comes to delegate math.

But alas, California doesn't vote until June, and pundits and candidates need something to fill their time before then. So, we talk about the first states to vote, and those states happen to be Iowa and New Hampshire.