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Democratic Party officials don’t want Iowa and New Hampshire to go first anymore

Tom Perez and Harry Reid want the Democratic nomination process to reflect party diversity.

Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, speaks in Manchester, New Hampshire, on February 7, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It appears Iowa’s days as the first-in-the-nation caucus may be numbered — particularly now that several high-profile Democrats, including Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have publicly criticized the current process for choosing a presidential nominee.

Perez — who has signaled support for reevaluating the caucus system in recent days — explicitly called for reform in an interview with CNN Wednesday morning. In particular, he expressed concern over the lack of racial diversity in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I think the time is right for that conversation,” he said. “I want to make sure that we reflect the grand diversity of our party in everything we do.”

The early voting calendar has drawn criticism from Democrats who point out that though black voters make up the heart of the party’s voter base, Iowa and New Hampshire are both overwhelmingly white.

Perez reiterated that point Wednesday morning. “The candidate who is going to win this race ... is the candidate who does the best job bringing together this entire diverse coalition of the Democratic Party,” he said. “African American voters are the backbone of the Democratic Party.”

Which candidate can best rally Democrats of all backgrounds remains an open question. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday and the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses, while former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg received the most state delegates in Iowa last week. But neither state provided a test of candidates’ backing among voters of color, something the upcoming Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary will do.

Because Iowa and New Hampshire provide the primary’s first contests, they carry an outsize influence on who ends up the party’s nominee, despite awarding just 65 of the 1,990 party convention delegates needed to win the nomination, as explained by Vox’s Dylan Matthews:

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.

While there have been calls for reforming the calendar before, several issues in this year’s cycle — particularly a delay in reporting the results of Iowa’s caucuses — have given added life to calls for reform. In the past, appeals to change the order of Democratic contests have come to naught, but things may be different this time, particularly given that Perez is not the only party leader calling for reform.

Reporting issues in Iowa have added pressure for reform

The Iowa Democratic Party struggled to report complete results for much of the past week after the state caucused last Monday. Precinct chairs reported having difficulties with an app they were supposed to use to report results and struggled to call in the caucus totals as well. Also, confusion over new rules may have led some errors to be introduced into the results. This led to delays in reporting vote totals, which weren’t officially finalized until Sunday.

Iowa’s issues renewed calls to reform the entire early caucus and primary system. And the latest Monmouth University 2020 poll, released Tuesday, revealed Democratic voters are highly dissatisfied with how the system currently works.

Just over 1 in 4 voters think the current system results in the best candidate being chosen for the nomination, and only 7 percent said New Hampshire and Iowa should continue to go first.

Perez has made it clear he believes the system should be reevaluated, and he has been joined in this by another powerful Democrat: Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Iowa has forfeited its chance to be number one. I don’t think that’ll happen anymore,” Reid told Vice News Tuesday.

In Iowa’s place, Reid suggested that his home state, Nevada, should have the first choice, pointing to the state’s Latinx population and racial diversity.

“Since the debacle in Iowa, [pundits] have been talking about Nevada should be the first state. Why? Because we’re a state that’s heavily diverse,” he said. “It’s really a state that represents what the country is all about. So I think that Iowa really was an embarrassment to everybody.”

About 28 percent of Nevada’s population (and 17 percent of its eligible voters) are Latinx, a far cry from the overwhelmingly white populations in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevada has the next crack at the Democratic field, holding its caucuses on February 22.

Only time will tell if pressure to change the electoral calendar will endure as the 2020 Democratic primary churns toward Super Tuesday. Perez has previously said the DNC will address the issue once the primary is over. But if critics of the system, like Perez and Reid, get their way, there may well be a new calendar in place for the party’s presidential nomination race in 2024 or 2028.

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