The life of the average Iowan or New Hampshirite doesn’t reflect the reality of the average American. Take a look at New Hampshire’s demographics, and you’ll see a state that’s nearly 94 percent white, with wealthier residents than the many states, far fewer foreign-born residents, and higher levels of educational attainment. Iowa is much the same: 91 percent white, high rates of home ownership, and low rates of poverty.
The short answer for why Iowa and New Hampshire matter: Symbolism. The Iowa caucuses are the first electoral events of the presidential campaign season; the New Hampshire primary is the first primary.
The long answer: The process leading all the way to the general election starts here. In Iowa on Jan. 3, voters will meet in 99 conventions to elect county-level delegates. Those 99 county delegates select district and state delegates, who will eventually select the delegates that attend the national Democratic and Republican conventions—-where those delegates confirm the presidential nominee. (Remember the frantic counting of delegates that happened before Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign? The Iowa caucuses are the first step there.)
And it’s worth noting that Barack Obama won the largely white Iowa caucuses in 2008—Schaller calls it “one of great racial ironies of modern American politics”—which was the first sign that he actually was a viable candidate.
– From “Why (Very White) Iowa and New Hampshire Mean So Much In Politics,” by Shani O. Hilton