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A Primary Role: Small States Earn Those Big Stakes

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Iowa and New Hampshire are not demographic snapshots of America. They are smaller, less diverse and more rural than California, New York or Illinois, which have a lot more votes.

But Iowa and New Hampshire win a lot of attention early in an election year. As an old political columnist, now departed, once told me over the din of clinking cups in an Iowa diner, "If the first presidential caucuses were in Hawaii, Congress would give federal subsidies to make gasoline out of pineapples."

But does all the effort to please a few thousand voters in Iowa and New Hampshire make sense?

Both major parties have fiddled with the primary lineup in recent years. Iowa and New Hampshire vow to remain first, even if they have to reschedule their voting for Halloween.

The parties moved South Carolina and Florida to earlier primary dates at the end of this month to give more weight to the growing South. South Carolina has an African-American population of almost 30 percent.

The demographic data for Florida — the numbers of blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians — and even average daily commuting time are within just a few percentage points of the national census numbers. Florida is also now the fourth most populous state in the nation, which often astonishes New Yorkers.

But I'm always inspired to see the road to the White House begin in two small, snowy states, in which anyone who wants to look a candidate in the eye probably can — up close. Presidential contenders in Iowa and New Hampshire aren't just images on a screen. They're as eager to shake your hand as a friendly dog is to lick your shoes. People in town halls tend to ask informed questions about trade, jobs, debt and security, not just about opinion polls or "Who's the minister for construction and spatial planning of Croatia?"

Iowa and New Hampshire let candidates with less money for ads at least try to compete with hard work, hearty handshakes and ideas.

There is a long list of people who won caucuses or primaries in those states who were not elected president: Mike Huckabee, Dick Gephardt, Hillary Clinton, Henry Cabot Lodge and Paul Tsongas. But some years, you can see the hand of history.

Jimmy Carter won Iowa, then New Hampshire in 1976, and was no longer just a grinning, long-shot southern governor. Barack Obama's victory in Iowa's 2008 caucuses seemed to answer if an African-American junior senator from a big city could win the votes and hopes of whites in small-town America with "Yes, we can."

Iowa and New Hampshire might look small and vanilla in a nation of multiplying hues and creeds. But they pay attention to their lead-off role.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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