Fasten your seat belts for the 2016 Presidential primaries, but don't expect the first two states to winnow the field very much.
The first voting starts Feb. 1 in Iowa, a small state where the religious right skews the Republican vote. That may be good news for Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But most top finishers in past Republican Iowa caucuses, such as Mike Huckabee, failed to get far in bigger primaries. One year, the Iowa runner-up was the Rev. Pat Robertson.
Then it's on to the primary in New Hampshire, a small state that is far more liberal than much of the nation. That could mean a stellar showing by Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who isn't likely to go much further.
Both tiny states can have a big impact, though. If Hillary Clinton had blocked Barack Obama's first victory in Iowa in 2008, she may well have gone on to win the Democratic nomination. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election after anti-Vietnam war candidate Eugene McCarthy won big support in the New Hampshire primary. This year the early states will show how much Donald Trump's poll numbers translate into real votes.
The small states also give long-shot candidates at least a chance to reach voters. Way back in 1976, while reporting for the Wall Street Journal, I followed Democratic hopeful Moe Udall across New Hampshire. The Arizona senator's entire entourage consisted of me and two other reporters traveling with Udall in a car driven by his son.
Udall had no illusions about his prospects. He loved to tell about the time he walked into a barbershop and announced, ""I'm Moe Udall, and I'm running for President." The barber looked up and said, "We were just laughing about that."
By contrast, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan was trailed on the campaign trail by two big press buses. The former movie actor didn't get the nomination that year, but I recall legendary Washington Post political reporter David Broder telling me after one stop: "The Democrats are making a mistake if they underestimate this man."
As the primaries spread across the nation, Reagan rode with reporters on a chartered commercial airliner. At the controls was a fun-loving pilot who upon landing would hang a rubber chicken out of the cockpit window.
Third-party candidate George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, could only afford to lease an old World War II plane that was a noisy flying bucket of bolts. For we fellow travelers, the flights were as shaky and scary as Wallace's campaign.
Sometimes reporters are even made part of the political show. In Chicago, the Jimmy Carter campaign herded us all into the open back of a flat-bed truck to follow the candidate's car in a parade down State Street. To onlookers, we were like the caged animals in a circus parade.
I always thought it would be better to start the presidential primaries in several big states in order to get down to the serious candidates. Then they could go head to head in the personal campaigning in small states. My idea has been ignored. So get ready to see Hillary Clinton milking cows in Iowa, and Donald Trump in his thousand-dollar suits rubbing elbows with flannel-shirted diners at New Hampshire pancake houses.
Shafer, a James City County resident, is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal. .