Undercover Economist

First things first

Iowa and New Hampshire are tiny states, and they have too few electoral college votes to exert much direct influence over who runs for president. Yet everybody agrees that their indirect influence is vast. The Republican hopeful Mitt Romney was all but written off after failing to win in either state (although Michigan has given him a sudden resurrection); Democratic contender Hillary Clinton went from favourite to also-ran to favourite again after losing the Iowa caucus and then winning the New Hampshire primary. Does it make any sense that such tiny states largely determine the candidates’ fortunes, or does it simply indicate that voters are acting like sheep?

That question poses a false dilemma. Yes, voters are acting like sheep. But, yes, it all makes perfect sense. There are two good reasons why early success matters.

The first is that many donors want to back the winning candidate, whoever that is. Certainly, some donors are true believers, but many others also care about being on the winning side.

“I just got a call from a donor,” one leading Clinton fundraiser told the Financial Times, moments after her unexpected victory in New Hampshire. “If she’d lost, I would not have received the call.”

There’s a parallel here between the emergence of frontrunning candidates and the emergence of new technology standards. (The most recent example is the battle for survival between two high-definition video standards; Sony’s Blu-ray looks like it’s beating Toshiba’s HD DVD.) Most customers don’t care which one triumphs; they just don’t want to be left holding an obsolete format. This is why format wars are miserable for the industry: they encourage customers to stop buying until the fog clears.

Donors who want to back the eventual presidential winner have an easier time. The results from New Hampshire and Iowa often tell them which way to jump. Even if those results are flukes, the donors merely need all to jump in the same direction. That may not be pretty but neither is it irrational.

But voters also matter, which is the second reason early success is important. According to one estimate from economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff – who looked at how opinion polls in late-voting states respond to early results – the early voters in US elections each have up to 20 times as much influence as those in later voting states.

That sounds like the later voters are being irrationally passive; it’s passive, yes, but I’m not so sure that it is irrational. The US has such a huge electorate that an individual voter has no influence over the result.

People join in because it’s fun or they feel a sense of duty, but that doesn’t mean they work hard to understand the issues. One would hardly expect the typical voter to scrutinise manifestos as assiduously as a copy of What Hi-Fi? Voting for the wrong candidate will not change the result, but buying the wrong hi-fi would hurt.

So votes cast in Iowa and New Hampshire each carry up to 20 times more weight than elsewhere – and the electoral process seems so much more fun there. Voters go on outings with friends and family, meet the candidates and hear them speak, and in general enjoy personalised politics.

They have a reason to do their homework.

And that’s the implicit deal: America says to Iowa and New Hampshire, “If you do the hard work of deciding for us, we’ll promise to follow where you lead, and the politicians promise to put on a really good show.”

What could make more sense than that? If only the small states could agree to take turns as to who’d be first, the US would have a pretty good electoral system.

Also published at ft.com.