Over the last 10 presidential campaigns, the first two — and the most influential — battles in the nominating process have been the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses quickly followed by the New Hampshire primary.
How influential? Every Republican presidential nominee from Gerald Ford in 1976 to Mitt Romney in 2012 has first won either — or both — the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Only one Democratic presidential nominee over those same 10 elections, Bill Clinton in 1992 (when Iowa favorite-son candidate Tom Harkin ran unchallenged in his home state), who finished second in New Hampshire, did not win one or both of those states.
There was something quite special about these two small states where presidential candidates were obliged to meet voters face-to-face and to answer questions directly from machinists, nurses and bus drivers. Yes, there was exaggeration — but also more than a kernel of truth to the old story about one crusty New Hampshire voter who, when asked his opinion of candidate Clinton, allegedly answered: “Not sure yet. I’ve only met him three times.”
But in the 2016 presidential campaign, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire will not be courted by the candidates anywhere near as assiduously as those would-be presidents will be wooing one or two really deep-pocketed angels to bankroll their campaigns. Don’t take my word for it. Just look at how court-sanctioned unlimited donations changed the dynamics of the 2012 Republican fight.
Remember Newt Gingrich? On Jan. 4, Gingrich finished fourth with 13 percent of the Republican vote in the Iowa caucuses, a devastating blow to his White House hopes. But not as disheartening as New Hampshire, just eight days later, where the former House speaker collected only 9 percent of the GOP vote while again finishing a distant fourth again.
By every measure from races over the last four decades, Gingrich’s candidacy was toast. The presidential candidate who ran that poorly found that his lack of voter support immediately translated into shrinking, even disappearing, financial support, as well. Winning less than 10 percent in New Hampshire led to one outcome: a semi-gracious concession speech and a hasty retreat from the race.
But thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court, Gingrich did not need either voter support or small contributions to stay alive. Gingrich needed just one billionaire. And he found him in Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas and Macao casino owner who is, with a personal fortune of $20.8 billion — according to Forbes, which keeps track of these things — the seventh-richest individual in the United States.
Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave a total of $19.5 million to Winning Our Future, a so-called super political action committee, “supporting conservative ideals and Newt Gingrich for president.” With some of that Adelson money, Gingrich supporters were able to broadcast a 27-minute documentary-style commercial titled King of Bain, which characterized Republican front-runner Romney as an uncaring corporate raider who left American hometowns he “invaded” with shuttered factories and shattered dreams.
In past campaigns, a Gingrich — out of votes in New Hampshire and Iowa — would have been out of money and out of the race. But with Mr. and Mrs. Adelson ponying up $12.5 million in just the five weeks after Gingrich’s being routed in New Hampshire, and with the former speaker performing well in candidate debates, he seriously wounded Romney, won the South Carolina primary and remained in the fight until May.
The groundwork for the Obama campaign’s subsequent negative attack on Romney was supplied by Gingrich and Adelson’s checkbook — made possible by the Supreme Court having removed all limits from political contributions.
If you want to run for president in 2016, instead of recruiting county chairs in Dubuque or Nashua, chances are you’ll be spending your time and energy chasing and courting your own Sheldon Adelson, who could sustain you through fourth-place finishes in those first few primaries.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.