U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa January 31, 2016. Credit: JIM YOUNG | REUTERS

For presidential hopefuls from both major parties, the first step toward appearing on the November ballot is taken during the Iowa caucuses, taking place Monday.

The second step comes in the form of the New Hampshire party primaries, held on Feb. 9.

The candidates who experience success in those first states build valuable momentum toward the ultimate Democratic and Republican nominations, and as the political analysis site FiveThirtyEight notes, it’s been 24 years since a candidate has claimed a party nomination without winning at least one of the first two states.

(It’s been 44 years since a candidate who claimed both states has failed to win his party’s nomination, in contrast. That candidate was Maine’s own Ed Muskie, who won the party nod in four of the first five states before falling back into the pack and ultimately being overtaken by South Dakota’s George McGovern, among others.)

So if a major party candidate leaves New Hampshire on a two-state winning streak, recent history suggests that candidate would be a strong bet to roll all the way to his or her party nomination.

But many critics argue Iowa and New Hampshire wield disproportionate influence over the races based just on their timing.

“Every four years when the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary roll around, the critics and cynics question why such unrepresentative patches of America get to vote first in presidential nominating contests,” explained National Public Radio’s Asma Khalid in a recent analysis. “Why is so much political power, they complain, given to states that are more white and more rural than the rest of the country?”

Texas state Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican, recently called for states to rotate which ones go first in the presidential nomination cycles, lamenting that states with more people, diverse populations and wider ranging business landscapes aren’t given as much attention in the early campaigns.

“They don’t have the diversity in population,” Larson told the website Observer about Iowa and New Hampshire. “They don’t have both the agricultural and the industrial and some of the complexities that come from having big cities. They don’t have the issues big states have. It doesn’t make sense that we continue to follow this process when a rotation serves citizens across the U.S.”

So if Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t representative of the country as a whole, which states are?

In Khalid’s aforementioned analysis, NPR developed a way to determine statistically which states best represent microcosms of the larger American population — and thus, may be most reflective of the priorities of the voting populace nationwide and by extension be the best states to kick off the caucus/primary season. (In case Larson’s rotation plan doesn’t catch on.)

NPR’s so-called “Perfect State Index” searched for states which came closest to matching the nation’s overall racial makeup, median age (37.7), household income level ($53,482), educational attainment (29.3 percent have bachelor’s degrees) and religious devotion (53 percent call religion “very important”).

The state which most closely mirrored the larger U.S. across those criteria was Illinois, followed by Kansas.

So where does Maine fit in?

Perhaps not surprisingly for a state well-known as having among the oldest, whitest and least religious populations in the country, Maine ranked near the bottom of the list — No. 46 out of 50 states.

However, Maine did rank ahead of its neighbor New Hampshire. So by these metrics, as long as a demographic outlier state is going to wield disproportionate political influence, it might as well be Maine.

See the full NPR Perfect State Index chart by clicking here.

Any shift on that front is unlikely to happen, however, as the Granite State has held the country’s first primary for a century and even has a state law requiring it to hold its primary at least a week ahead of any “similar election” in another state.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.