clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New Hampshire shouldn’t be the first primary

Take it from me, a New Hampshirite: The current system is horrendously unfair.

Supporters cheer for Joe Biden at a rally outside the New Hampshire State House in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 8, 2019.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Tuesday, New Hampshire voters will exercise their quadrennial right to shape both parties’ presidential contests. The Republican race is set to result in a dull victory for Donald Trump, but whoever wins on the Democratic side, be it Sen. Bernie Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, will gain momentum going into the rest of the primaries, and improve their odds of victory substantially.

I should like this system. I grew up in New Hampshire, and the primary is great. For political dorks, it’s a truly wonderful season (be sure to check out the primary-themed kiosk at the Manchester Airport; last time I checked it had a great Lugar ’96 pin). I got to shake hands with candidates, attend rallies, even ask questions at forums.

I carried a Bradley 2000 sign outside a debate when I was 9. Dennis Kucinich was a dick to me once in a diner when I was 13. And when I got old enough to volunteer on campaigns, I got a chance to interact with presidential politics in a way I never could have anywhere else (except Iowa, of course). I seriously doubt I’d be writing about politics for a living if I hadn't spent my childhood in the Granite State.

But the system needs to end. There is no good reason why Iowa and New Hampshire should go first. That matters regardless of your broader views on the primary system.

I’d personally like both parties to have a national mail-in primary using ranked pairs voting, but even if you think it’s important for a couple of small states to go first, or if you want to do rotating regional primaries, or think states’ voting order should be determined randomly, you should want Iowa and New Hampshire to lose their privileged status. There’s just no justification for it.

Iowa and New Hampshire do not represent America

The United States is a diverse place. Iowa and New Hampshire are not.

The US has a large immigrant population, including many naturalized citizens who can and should participate in the primary process.

It's a country built on cities and developments proximate to cities; the Census Bureau estimates that 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas in 2010. The census’s definition is kind of broad, but even if you limit yourself to America’s 50 biggest metro areas, more than 167 million people lived in them in 2010 — about 54 percent of Americans.

The US is also a racially diverse country, and growing more so. White non-Hispanics account for 63.7 percent of the population. Current projections suggest that America will be majority nonwhite by 2044.

People listen to Sen. Elizabeth Warren speak at Nashua Community College in Nashua, New Hampshire, on February 5, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Iowa and New Hampshire, however, do not have particularly large immigrant populations. Only 6.2 percent of Iowans and 6 percent of New Hampshirites are foreign-born, compared with 13.5 percent nationwide. Only 7.9 percent of Iowans and 8 percent of New Hampshirites speak a language other than English at home; 21.5 percent of American families do.

And a whopping 85.3 percent of Iowans and 90 percent of New Hampshirites are non-Hispanic whites.

Only 1.7 percent of New Hampshirites are black. Less than 2 percent.

New Hampshire and Iowa are also markedly less urban than the rest of the country; they have cities, but none are particularly big. Des Moines, Iowa’s biggest city, has only 216,853 people; Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest, only has 112,525.

By putting Iowa and New Hampshire first, the Democratic and Republican parties are effectively saying that disproportionate power and influence should go to a small group of overwhelmingly white people in rural areas and small cities. That influence shouldn’t go to a state or region with a large Hispanic population. It shouldn’t go to a state or region with a large black population. It shouldn’t go to a state with large cities and a strong interest in urban issues. It should go to these people instead.

That does a profound disservice to the millions of Americans living in diverse, densely populated areas. Or, to put it more bluntly, it gives white people outsize power in determining nominees, and disenfranchises black, Hispanic, Asian Americans, and Native Americans relatively speaking.

The size of the bias is truly staggering. Economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff estimated in 2011 that an Iowa or New Hampshire voter carried the same influence in determining her party’s ultimate nominee as five voters from Super Tuesday states put together.

As Ben Adler once asked in the Nation, “How, exactly, is spending the most time kibitzing with a small, racially homogeneous group of people a more important qualification for the presidency than the metrics voters in other states would use to judge the candidates?”

None of the arguments for Iowa and New Hampshire make any sense

Iowa and New Hampshire have plenty of defenders. Their arguments are all bad.

The most serious attempt to defend caucuses is the 2010 book Why Iowa? by political scientists David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert, and Todd Donovan. They argue that the caucus system creates more informed (albeit fewer) voters, and that the sequential primary system lets candidates be heard and informs voters in later primaries.

A voter in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, just after midnight the day of the 2012 general election.
Rogerio Barbosa/AFP via Getty Images

They put together a good argument, but it’s not an argument for Iowa. It’s an argument for sequential voting. Indeed, the authors conclude with a proposal for a “caucus window,” in which any number of states could hold caucuses, followed by a national primary.

“We suggest that the national parties could opt for a process in which any number of states could hold caucuses on the first voting day of the sequence,” they write. “Another alternative would have the parties retaining a sequence in which Iowa, or some other relatively small state, is granted first-in-the-nation priority.”

At most, the virtues of caucuses and sequential primaries argue for having one small state go first. But they don’t argue for that state being Iowa or New Hampshire.

Many proponents also argue that New Hampshire lets smaller campaigns take off, because it’s less costly to campaign there than nationally, and because they have to deal with voters face to face. “New Hampshire serves as a testing ground for presidential candidates, giving long-shot candidates a chance and making sure that candidates face tough questions from New Hampshire voters who know their issues,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said in 2015.

But why does New Hampshire have to be that testing ground? Why can’t it be, say, the Bronx? It has about the same number of people as New Hampshire (roughly 1.4 million). And if we’re worried about underdog candidates not having the money to travel nationally, what better place to hold a primary than a densely populated urban area! Travel between events would be a breeze.

And the voters would probably ask better questions. The Bronx is far more racially diverse than New Hampshire, bringing in a whole new array of perspectives, and it has neighborhoods suffering from deep, persistent poverty. In a Bronx primary, campaigns wouldn’t be able to ignore that. They would have to propose solutions to urban poverty, to out-of-control police use of force, to failing schools.

My point here isn’t to sing the praises of the Bronx; a Bronx primary would be amazing, but I still prefer a national primary. My point is that every argument for New Hampshire or Iowa is an argument for some other small grouping of people to go first. That grouping of people does not have to be blindingly white and disproportionately rural. It can be the Bronx. It can be Chicago. It can be Atlanta. It can be a portion of Los Angeles. Better yet, it could alternate among a number of areas.

The American people want the system to change. A poll last month found that 58 percent of Democratic voters want a nationwide primary, and just 11 percent support the current system; 56 percent say Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early states have too much power. Other polls reach similar conclusions. It’s time the nation’s voters got their wish.

Further reading:

This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated for the 2020 primary.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.