Are Iowa and New Hampshire voters "better" voters?
Those two states will be the first to vote, early next year, and the results of the just released may tell us what can happen when voters start to focus on the election itself.
Voters in these two states are different - and it's not because of race (they're mostly white) or where they live (not in the megalopolises of the East and West Coasts). It's because of what they know.
Iowa voters go to caucuses; and nearly two out of three likely caucus-goers are paying a lot of attention to the campaign. So are half the likely voters in New Hampshire, where there will be a primary election. In Iowa half of all registered voters - whether or not they say they will attend a caucus - are paying a lot of attention. That compares with just 24 percent of registered voters nationwide.
Because voters are paying attention, the candidates are far better known there. For example, in the last national CBS News Poll, 79 percent of Republican primary voters said they had no opinion about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Most of those people weren't just undecided, but admitted they hadn't heard much about him. Huckabee is in second place on the Republican side in Iowa - only six points behind frontrunner Mitt Romney.
"Retail" politics matters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Three in ten likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters has gone to a campaign event or seen a candidate in person. That number is even higher for Democratic primary voters there (35 percent) and is higher still for the Iowa caucus-goers, a small group but a major focus of candidates' efforts. Forty-five percent of Republican caucus-goers and an astonishing 63 percent of Democratic caucus-goers have gone to a campaign event or seen a candidate in person.
Does this make Iowa and New Hampshire voters "better" than voters elsewhere? It does make them think differently than other voters. It really helps the candidates who are not known (and are often not covered) nationally. Among Iowa Democratic caucus-goers who have seen a candidate in person, John Edwards has a narrow lead over Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But Bill Richardson, who trails badly nationally, is in double digits with this group, and near the 15 percent threshold cutoff for gaining delegates at most local caucuses.
Among likely Republican caucus-goers, Romney has a narrower lead with those who have been to a campaign event or have seen a candidate than he does with those who have not. Candidates like Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter, who are almost unknown nationally, register with this group (though at 6 percent and 4 percent respectively, they still trail badly). Just 24 percent of those who have seen a candidate currently favor Romney, compared with 33 percent of those who have not.
Being in contact with a candidate also makes a voter better able to articulate his or her reasons for their support - only 1 percent of voters who favored any candidate were unable to explain why.
These attentive Iowa voters - with a personal connection to the campaign -- are both forgiving and pragmatic. More than half the likely Democratic caucus-goers who have seen a candidate say they'd be willing to vote for someone they disagreed with on the length of time troops should stay in Iraq, if they thought that candidate could win. That's 12 points more than those who have not seen a candidate in person. The difference is less dramatic among likely Republican caucus-goers, but Republican voters with candidate contact are more willing to support someone less conservative than they are, if they believe that candidate is more electable.
That should be good news for some candidates. Within both parties, the candidate perceived as "most electable" has differed with some party stalwarts on key issues: Hillary Clinton on Iraq and Rudy Giuliani on social issues like abortion. But while Clinton has a (non-significant) edge in Iowa and a large lead in New Hampshire, Republican voters in those states currently choose the candidates who have courted them rather than Giuliani.
And voters in both states admit that events could change their candidate preference - about half the Democrats and even more of the Republicans say their minds are not yet firmly made up and their preference could change between now and January 3.
So, should Americans be happy that Iowa and New Hampshire start the process? Right now, they are not. Back in June, 51 percent of registered voters nationally told CBS News and The Times that Iowa and New Hampshire had too much influence on who became the presidential nominees.
But voters in those two states care a lot about the election, and are very protective of their first-in-the-nation status. Sixty-two percent of voters in Iowa always think their state should come first. So do 69 percent of New Hampshire's likely voters.
Our poll suggests that maybe Americans shouldn't be so negative. Maybe voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are "better" voters - at least, in the sense that they act in the way we've been taught voters should.
By Kathy Frankovic