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First in the Nation: How the Presidential Primary Calendar Prioritizes White Voters

As caucuses in Iowa closed on February 3rd, Americans waited with bated breath to learn which Democratic candidates will have an early advantage in the party’s primary contest. The election was already fraught with uncertainty; just two days earlier, the Des Moines Register had canceled the release of their Iowa Poll for the first time in 76 years after Pete Buttigieg’s campaign raised concerns about some candidates being left out of interview questions. Uncertainty became chaos as the Democratic party, citing a “quality control” issue, failed to release the results of the caucuses that night. Aside from kindling accusations of incompetence and even rumors of conspiracy, the Iowa caucus debacle raised a question that seems to arise every other February: Why does Iowa go first?

The original reason for Iowa’s status as first-in-the-nation is a relatively mundane scheduling necessity; the same is true for New Hampshire, which votes a week later. However, both states are committed to preserving their early status and, in the process, preserving a system that can benefit grassroots campaigns at the expense of voters who do not fit the white, rural, and older demographics that compose the majority of those states. While it may be necessary to violate the principle of one-person, one-vote in order to keep the primary contest open to less wealthy campaigns and ensure that there is a clear winner, there is no reason that the prioritized voters be so predominantly white.

The primary has started this way since the late 1960s when the Iowa Democratic Party instituted separate district and state conventions to address concerns that caucuses had become too dominated by party bosses. This extended period of delegate selection required the state to move up the date of its caucuses. New Hampshire, on the other hand, scheduled its primary around its town meetings, which happen before the mud season. Both states have since jealously guarded their early status as a point of pride. New Hampshire, which voted first since 1920 until Iowa moved to the beginning of the calendar, even has a law requiring its Secretary of State to ensure that it is the first primary election in the nation (Iowa’s caucuses do not count as a primary for the purposes of this law).

As the first states in a sequential primary system, the results of Iowa and New Hampshire carry outsized importance. Voters look to the outcomes of these states as indicators of candidates’ performances, and the winners often see a significant advantage in the following primaries. In fact, a study conducted by Brown University professor Brian Knight found that voters in early states in a sequential primary have about 20 times the influence as voters in later states in determining the winner of the primary.

This system is not without its benefits. Aware that their performance in just one of these states could influence the rest of the campaign cycle, candidates pour a disproportionate amount of resources into Iowa and New Hampshire, spending weeks campaigning on the ground. This style of retail politics requires candidates to directly interact with countless voters and can often depend on grassroots activism, a welcome change from expensive television ads which favor candidates with well-lined coffers. As a result, a less well-funded candidate who can better connect with voters can often perform well in Iowa and thus gain a much-needed boost against their opponent. Both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama used this strategy to claim victory as underdogs in the primary before winning the general election.

However, these early voting states skew the election not only by violating the basic principle of one-person, one-vote but by giving outsize influence to states that are highly unrepresentative of the rest of the country. Both Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white, and their citizens are disproportionately older and live in rural areas. The result is an election that favors candidates who appeal to these voters at the cost of candidates with more diverse support. 

This imbalance has real effects on presidential elections. Brown University Professor Richard Arenberg wonders if things may have gone differently for Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who suffered from a lack of traction in early Iowa and New Hampshire polls, if these states did not hold such weight. There is legitimacy in such speculations: polls showed these candidates polling as well as Amy Klobuchar in other states and, in some, even surpassing Buttigieg, who claimed the most delegates in Iowa.

According to Arenberg, who worked for Senator Carl Levin, one of the earliest advocates for reforming the primary schedule, it’s “hard to justify starting the process with two states so unrepresentative of the country.” Professor Arenberg is right. This process of privileging the voices of white voters must end.

There have been attempts at reform, but none have proved particularly successful. National party organizations have instituted rules that govern when states should hold their primaries; while states have the legal authority to move their elections in defiance of these rules, the parties can simply refuse to recognize the elections. In 2008 Michigan moved its primary date all the way back to mid-January, joining Iowa and New Hampshire at the beginning of the schedule, but the DNC punished Michigan by stripping half of its delegate votes for violating its rules. In 2018 the DNC did, however, add Nevada and South Carolina to Iowa and New Hampshire’s early window to address concerns about the lack of diversity in the early states. It’s clear that any reform will require cooperation between the states and the national party organization.

Some propose the adoption of a simultaneous national primary in which all states vote on the same day. While this certainly preserves the principle of one-person, one-vote, it loses the one advantage of a sequential primary — the potential road to the nomination that it gives to underdog candidates. The retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire would give way to the wholesale politics of nationally oriented campaigns, with ad buys taking precedence over town halls and county fairs. 

Moreover, Professor Knight’s study concluded that simultaneous elections tend to produce tighter races. This would also prove problematic, with the likelihood of a brokered convention only increasing — especially in a primary with no clear front runner leading up to the elections. The case for a sequential primary is thus clearly solid. However, even if two states must vote first, there is no reason that they must be Iowa and New Hampshire.

Ideally, the party would select the two states that are most representative of the country as a whole. However, selecting states based on demographics would likely prove controversial, and selecting any other two states would be faced with opposition not only from Iowa and New Hampshire, who are well used to defending their position, but every other state not selected as well. This solution simply isn’t politically viable.

Instead, the order of states should be chosen at random. This would allow underdogs to focus on personal campaigning in the early states without continuously prioritizing the voices of white voters. In fact, the odds that two, randomly-selected states are both over 80 percent white is as low as five percent (Iowa and New Hampshire are both nearly 90 percent white). This plan also has the potential for widespread support, given that every state would have an equal chance of being chosen to command the influence of the early primaries. Depending on which states are chosen, this change also has the potential to give Democrats more experience campaigning on the ground in states that vote consistently red, giving the eventual nominee a leg up in the general election.

Voting reform is long past due in a country whose Electoral College already favors white, elderly, and rural voters. Randomizing the first two states in the presidential primary may not prevent disasters like that of this year’s Iowa caucus, but it would create a system that no longer prioritizes issues that face those voters over those of everyone else.

Image via Flickr (J. Stephen Conn)