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David Shribman mug

David Shribman

That sigh you hear — that collective exhale — is the expression of relief issuing forth from the political classes of Iowa and New Hampshire.

From where you sit, you cannot see scores of eyes looking heavenward. Nor the pressing of palms to the heart. Nor even the brief bows of the head in thanks. But they are there, for better or for worse, against all elements of logic and judgment.

Whom do they have to thank? The unlikely figure of adoration is a former aerospace engineer turned national-intelligence executive turned Trump-era secretary of state. And for what are they giving thanks?

Mike Pompeo, one of a dozen possible Republican presidential candidates, touched down (in person) in Iowa and (by Zoom) in New Hampshire in recent days.

Every four years those two states begin the parade of political tests for presidential candidates. Every four years pundits and political scientists argue that the states are too white, too educated and too isolated from the national mainstream to play such an important role. Every four years the mandarins of the two states’ politics hunker down and press their case to remain at the front of the line. Every four years they prevail.

The next presidential election is still more than three years away. Hardly anyone in this country is hungry for political rallies, stump speeches, brass bands and bumper stickers. Still, the process continues, just as it always does.

That is even though the first two states are under more pressure and scrutiny than ever before. Iowa botched the Democratic caucuses last year; it was the first symbol of a political system gone awry, an eerie precursor to a year of vote-counting contention. New Hampshire nearly left Joe Biden for dead; he came away with 8.4% of the vote, garnering 47,510 fewer voters than the man he appointed secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg.

Pompeo, who is no exemplar of political correctness, paid homage to the prized position of Iowa and New Hampshire in recent days. He attended a Republican event in Urbandale, Iowa, at the Machine Shed restaurant, which has a picturesque name (and spectacular fried pork tenderloin sandwiches) but is an Iowa version of an old Howard Johnson’s restaurant with a kitschy gift shop. Days later, he gave an interview to New Hampshire’s WMUR and attended a fundraiser for the vice-chair of the Merrimack Town Council, who is running in a special election to become one of the 400 members of the New Hampshire House.

Ordinarily, a figure who was the nation’s top diplomat — in this case a man who made 47 trips abroad and who only a few months ago was on a seven-nation tour that included sessions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — would not pay much attention to a job that pays $200 a year in a state legislative body that meets a couple of months a year.

Presidential politics sure is starting early.

It once was considered astonishing that someone like Robert Taft would declare his presidential candidacy 13 months before Election Day; the Ohio lawmaker did so in October 1951. By that point in the 2020 election, Kirsten Gillibrand had already dropped out, and Kamala Harris was clearly doomed.

“Crazy as it may sound, it’s no longer unusual for potential presidential candidates to test the waters this early,” said William Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist. “Of course, Pompeo hasn’t yet announced his candidacy, and he may ultimately decide not to run. But I can guarantee you that a number of other Republicans are thinking about running and thinking about various ways to call attention to themselves without formally announcing. If the Iowa or New Hampshire Republican Party needs a speaker for their next major meeting, they’ll have no shortage of eager volunteers.”

In January 1971, George McGovern announced his candidacy and the commentariat reacted with astonishment, if not outright hilarity, that some damn fool would join a presidential race 541 days before the Democratic National Convention. But the South Dakota senator, along with Rep. Donald M. Fraser of Minnesota, quite literally had written the new rules of presidential campaigning and then won the nomination.

Future candidates took the lesson. Four years later, Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma and Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia began their campaigns even earlier than McGovern, and Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington came close. By 1988, Gov. Pierre S. DuPont IV of Delaware beat them all, 699 days before the convention. Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland went further; he announced 755 days before the 2020 convention. He dropped out four days before Iowans trooped to their caucus sites.

But early starts weren’t always a waste of time. Early candidates won their nominations six times since 1972, and heavyweight contenders such as Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. of California blamed their losses in part on late starts.

One of the disadvantages of this trend is that officeholders neglect their offices while running sustained campaigns; McGovern voted in nine-tenths of roll call votes in 1970, but only half in 1971 and only a fifth in 1972.

“I’ve always thought that it doesn’t matter if Iowa and New Hampshire are first and second if the candidates act as if they are at the front of the pack,” says Barbara Trish, a political scientist at Iowa’s Grinnell College. “And if the candidates come, the media will too, so that’s enough.”

And though President Biden may have no love for Iowa — he came in fifth there in 2008, with less than 1% — his indifference will not matter. If he runs for re-election, as he suggested he would, there will be no real Iowa contest for Democrats. It’s Republicans who will matter.

One postscript: Right now is about the same time in the political cycle that an important Democrat made his first exploratory trip to South Carolina, which has become the fourth stop on the presidential-campaign parade. He ended up not running. It was, of course, Biden himself. Seven years later, South Carolina saved his political career — and set a candidate who had finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire on the road to the White House in his third try for the presidency.

— David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.