Iowa and New Hampshire should never be first again

I have been ranting about the absurdity of NH and Iowa always being first for literally as long as I have been teaching American politics (22 years). What’s kind of awesome is that lots and lots of people’s opinions who actually matter are finally making similar rants.  I’m not going to confidently predict that we will finally be rid of this absurd situation by 2024, but I will confidently that the days of this perversity are numbered.  I’ve read lots of good cases on the matter in the last few weeks (and saving for the day of the Iowa Caucus) and David Leonhardt’s is probably the best:

This system has worked out much less well for the other 48 states. They have voluntarily surrendered political influence — and allowed the presidential nominating process to become warped

I know the usual excuse for Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s special status: That the good people there take extra care in selecting candidates. And many Iowans and New Hampshirites are good people who take their civic duty seriously.

But step back and think about how paternalistic and condescending that explanation is. The residents of New Jersey, New Mexico, Indiana, Louisiana and other late-voting states somehow aren’t sufficiently civic-minded or intelligent to choose their own presidential candidates? They always need the same two states to winnow the field?

Right now, I’m as obsessed as anyone with the early-state polls. Yet I also want to use this moment to point out how bizarre the current system is — and to make a plea: The 2020 cycle should be the last time that Iowa and New Hampshire benefit at the country’s expense.

The strongest part of the case for change, of course, is the racial aspect of the current calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the country’s whitest states. About 6 percent of their combined population is black or Asian-American. Almost 87 percent is non-Hispanic white, compared with 60 percent for the country as a whole. Demographically, Iowa and New Hampshire look roughly like the America of 1870

In truth, the whiteness of Iowa and New Hampshire matters. Consider that Cory Booker and Kamala Harris were doing as well as Amy Klobuchar in early polls of more diverse states; they led Pete Buttigieg in some polls. But Booker and Harris are finished, in no small part because of their struggles in Iowa and New Hampshire. Klobuchar and Buttigieg still might break out.

Or consider that a candidate with strong white support (like Bernie Sanders) could win both Iowa and New Hampshire this year. That result would create a media narrative about Joe Biden’s campaign being badly wounded, even though Biden leads among two large groups of Democratic voters: African Americans and Latinos. Those voters, however, are told to wait their turn…

It would not be hard to create a fairer system, one that aspired to treat all Americans equally. It could even retain the best aspect of Iowa and New Hampshire: the emphasis on in-person politics that a small state demands.

One or two smaller states could always go first, with the specific states rotating each cycle. (Many smaller states — like Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico and Rhode Island — are diverse.) They could immediately be followed by a couple of larger states that are home to major cities.

And I’m always happy to see Michael Tomasky in the NYT.  He does a nice job on how the DNC has very much enabled this situation and needs to take responsibility to end it:

Iowa and New Hampshire. Here they come again, reliably in grim tandem, like the flu and gastroenteritis. Two small, unrepresentative states will set the terms of the Democratic presidential campaign, exerting far more influence over the nominating process than states that rank 32nd and 42nd in population have any right to.

This must end for Democrats. Everyone knows it. Everyone argues it. But then, everyone throws up their hands. Iowa has been first for nearly 50 years now, a position to which the Democratic Party has given its tacit assent. And New Hampshire — why, New Hampshire has a law stating that it must be the first primary. So there.

To which I say: So what? What the Democrats must do is simple. Stop giving the assent, and break the law. We need a little Democratic Party civil disobedience…

Iowa and New Hampshire. Here they come again, reliably in grim tandem, like the flu and gastroenteritis. Two small, unrepresentative states will set the terms of the Democratic presidential campaign, exerting far more influence over the nominating process than states that rank 32nd and 42nd in population have any right to.

This must end for Democrats. Everyone knows it. Everyone argues it. But then, everyone throws up their hands. Iowa has been first for nearly 50 years now, a position to which the Democratic Party has given its tacit assent. And New Hampshire — why, New Hampshire has a law stating that it must be the first primary. So there.

To which I say: So what? What the Democrats must do is simple. Stop giving the assent, and break the law. We need a little Democratic Party civil disobedience.

So what the Democratic National Committee needs to do is choose two other, more representative states. I would suggest Florida and Michigan. Florida is more diverse than the country as whole. The United States is 60 percent white non-Hispanic, 13 percent African-American, and 18 percent Latino; Florida is 54, 17 and 26. Michigan is somewhat less diverse than the country, at 75, 14 and 5, but at least the black population is representative, and there are other strong arguments for making an important Rust Belt state an early test.

These states are diverse in other important ways. They have major cities, smaller cities, suburbs, university towns and farms. They have economic diversity. And of course both are swing states with lots of electoral votes (29 and 16, respectively). They matter in a way Iowa and New Hampshire (six and four) do not.

I say Florida and Michigan, but take your pick. The point is, the Democrats should pick two large and diverse states — or it could be four states that are rotated, to add to the geographic diversity — and tell them to move their primary dates (and yes, primaries would be far, far preferable to caucuses) forward.

And then, let Iowa and New Hampshire do what they want, but just ignore them. The committee has some leverage here.

Both Tomasky and Leonhardt also have some good stuff on the history of how we got here.  And, if you are a podcast person, 538 has a great series of podcasts that nicely explain the history in a very engaging manner.

Had a great class discussion last week on reforming primaries and all my students strongly favored a system of rotation that relied upon more representative states.  Some even suggested a lottery for the order in each election year.  We ended up with an idea like a weighted NBA draft lottery to ensure you’d get some good balance.

Short version: there’s about a million ways to do this that are better than we have now.  And the Democratic party has to make that happen.  Hopefully by 2024, but definitely this just needs to happen.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to Iowa and New Hampshire should never be first again

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    The Iowa caucuses or any public caucuses are abominations. They destroy the whole idea of a secret ballot. The votes are public. Voters group themselves under the banner of an individual candidate and then may move into other identified groups if their candidate doesn’t get 15% of the voters.
    Reporting yesterday said that in rural Iowa, newer voters of minority groups don’t want to be identified as against Trump or at all. Caucuses are an invitation to bullying and lower voter turnout.
    The secret ballot should be protected at all cost or there never will be an honest election.

  2. Nicole K says:

    How about getting rid of primaries and letting the party bosses choose the best candidate again? That’s what I favor. Due to rational ignorance, the average voter just isn’t qualified to make an informed decision in the primary between candidates in the same party. That would put an end to the possibility of someone like Trump being able to get nominated for president. It would also eliminate the nonserious candidates like Steyer from wasting everyone’s time. It worked for a long time before we had primaries.

    • R. Jenrette says:

      No, Nicole. Smoke filled rooms don’t necessarily pick the “right” candidates. If we must err, let it be on the side of the democratic process. We must work toward our ideals knowing the way will never be perfect.
      We can’t let citizens pass the buck. We must succeed or fail on the idea that humans are rational beings and can act together but are not perfectly rational.

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