How Presidential Nominees are Chosen

Why Iowa?

Beyond that, why New Hampshire?

That those two states are up first in the presidential nominating process is a given, and every four years political reporters from around the globe descend on those small, demographically unrepresentative states to kick off the election season.

In a session with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, Stephen Ohlemacher (bio, Twitter) of The Associated Press explained why that is.

Ohlemacher is the AP’s election decision editor, managing a team of analysts that declares the winner in nearly every U.S. election; during even-numbered years, he tracks about 6,000 races on Election Day, gathering information from about 4,300 counties and townships across the country.

“Just about any news site that has election results on its web site, it’s powered by the AP,” he said.

Ohlemacher is also the news cooperative’s top delegate counter, tracking the often-Byzantine ways political parties apportion their delegates. He explained the differences between caucuses (such as Iowa’s) and the primaries used in most states; the different formulas used by the parties to award their delegates; what “superdelegates” are and why they aren’t so super in 2020; and the primary calendar that will award the majority of its delegates on Super Tuesday and other March primaries.

As for that calendar, Ohlemacher detailed the history of the nominating system. After a Democratic disaster in 1968, the party changed its processes to give a greater voice to regular voters – and less  to back-room power brokers. Candidates in 1972 and 1976 saw the value in competing hard in Iowa as a way to gain media attention.

“It didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time,” he said.

Over the next three decades, however, Iowa and New Hampshire became solidified as the first states in the process – and they have aggressively pushed back on any attempt to lose their special status.

This program is funded by Arnold Ventures. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Stephen Ohlemacher
Election decision editor, The Associated Press
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