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Why Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t go first in the primaries anymore

The two states give white voters outsized influence.

A Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter arrives for the caucus night celebration event in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Iowa and New Hampshire, two states widely seen as setting the tone for the presidential primary, have one major thing in common: They’re extremely white.

Both states’ populations are roughly 90 percent white — a stark contrast with both the country, which is 60 percent white, and the Democratic Party’s base, nearly 40 percent of which is made up of people of color.

That discrepancy has always been a point of contention. But now, particularly as the Democratic Party places a larger focus on representation than ever before and a once historically diverse field of candidates has narrowed to a slate of white frontrunners, it’s driving home a pointed question: Does the order of the early primary states discount voters of color? The data, as it stands, suggests that it does.

Iowa voters listen to Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Town Hall event in Davenport, Iowa, on January 31, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Because of their position in the primary calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire have an outsized influence on the outcomes in later states and on the nomination process writ large. According to one analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley, there was a 37-point change in national polls after John Kerry won in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004.

Before he dropped out of the 2020 Democratic race, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro was vocal in his opposition to the current primary order; he raised it as one of his chief issues.

“We can’t as a Democratic Party, continually and justifiably complain about Republicans who suppress the vote of people of color, and then turn around and start our nominating contest in two states, that even though they take their role seriously, hardly have any people of color,” Castro said during a campaign event last November.

Plenty of alternatives have already been floated: Other more representative states could vote earlier, for one, or entire regions could even rotate which one gets to vote first. Existing state laws, however, complicate the ability to change the status quo. While this question won’t be resolved in 2020, it’s one that certainly isn’t going away.

Iowa and New Hampshire voters’ outsized influence, briefly explained

Iowa established its status as a first-in-the-nation caucus in 1972, while New Hampshire has done the same with its primary since 1920. Although their positioning was initially just a matter of timing, both states began to take on growing importance after George McGovern and Jimmy Carter picked up momentum in the 1972 and 1976 elections, respectively, after scoring major victories in Iowa. That power has only grown ever since.

“The eventual nominee almost always wins Iowa or New Hampshire, or at least beats expectations in one of those two states,” Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, previously told Vox. President Bill Clinton in 1992 remains the only candidate in the past three decades to secure the Democratic nomination without winning either state.

Bill Clinton campaigning for presidency in Iowa, on August 6, 1992.
Ira Wyman/Sygma via Getty Images

The sequential nature of the primary imbues Iowa and New Hampshire with particular weight: The outcomes there ultimately affect candidates’ performances in other crucial early states like South Carolina and Nevada, given the momentum that candidates pick up from both the media and overall voter sentiment. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses helped address electability concerns some voters had, fueling his victory in South Carolina and eventual nomination.

In fact, the impact one voter has in either of the first two states is that of five voters on Super Tuesday, according to a 2011 study from economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff, who looked at how polls in later states changed after the earlier contests had taken place.

While there are advantages to having Iowa and New Hampshire so early in the primary calendar — they’re both easier for candidates to traverse compared to larger states, and they have more accessible media markets, both of which make it easier for an underdog to gain a profile — the skewed make-up of their electorates is a major reason to argue that they shouldn’t occupy this position.

The recent tech snafus in the Iowa caucuses, too, could give Democrats more reason to reconsider the state’s prominent role.

The two states don’t represent the US or the Democratic Party

Currently, Iowa and New Hampshire are a far cry from truly being representative of the Democratic electorate. They don’t account for the party’s racial diversity, among other things, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews detailed in a 2016 piece:

A whopping 88.7 percent of Iowans and 92.3 percent of New Hampshirites are non-Hispanic whites; only 63.7 percent of Americans as a whole are.

Only 3.4 percent of Iowans are black; 13.2 percent of Americans are.

Unlike the rest of the country, Iowa and New Hampshire do not have particularly large immigrant populations. Only 4.7 percent of Iowans and 5.6 percent of New Hampshirites are foreign-born, compared with 13.1 percent nationwide. Only 7.2 percent of Iowans and 8 percent of New Hampshirites speak a language other than English at home; 20.7 percent of American families do.

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 209,220 people; Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest, only has 110,448.

And the effects of this are wide-ranging: Not only does this schedule inadvertently devalue the role that different voters have in the primary, some experts see the focus on the early states also clearly determining the candidates that are considered more viable.

“It is fair to say if South Carolina were voting first and not Iowa and not New Hampshire, we’re probably talking about Joe Biden’s situation and his viability in a different way,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala told Vox.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden continues to have a 13-point lead over the rest of the field in South Carolina (where the Democratic electorate is 60 percent African American), while polls are closer in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Questions have also emerged about whether the order of the primary calendar has helped promote an overwhelmingly white field of contenders.

Wall decorations at a a canvassing launch event for Pete Buttigieg in West Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020,
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Someone could point to Barack Obama, he won Iowa, so how could you say candidates of color are disadvantaged?” says UC Riverside political science professor Karthick Ramakrishnan. “In order to do well in these states, candidates of color have to run deracialized campaigns and that’s not helpful for the Democratic Party, which depends disproportionately on communities of color.”

Illinois has emerged as a potential contender for the coveted first spot, though other reforms have been proposed, too

An analysis from FiveThirtyEight suggests that another Midwestern state might be a better option for the country’s first primary: Illinois. Skelley examined the racial, ethnic, and education breakdowns of the country, and ranked the states in the order that they reflected these splits.

The country as a whole is made up of 39.7 percent white voters with no college degree, 23.5 percent white voters with a college degree, 20.4 percent black voters, 8.9 percent Hispanic voters, and 7.4 percent all other voters, Skelley determines. Illinois was the state that most closely aligned with this breakdown, he found. The state is 37 percent white voters with no college degree, 23.7 percent white voters with a college degree, 22.1 percent black voters, 8.9 percent Hispanic voters, and 8.3 percent all other voters.

Illinois is followed by New Jersey, New York, and Florida; neither New Hampshire nor Iowa even cracked the top 30.

In addition to shifting the order of primary states, those who favor reform have proposed other ideas like rotating the order of states to give different regions the opportunity to go first or a national primary in which every state votes at the same time.

It’s worth noting that some of these suggested tweaks could inadvertently harm candidates who aren’t as well-funded. A national primary, for example, could prove significantly more expensive for a candidate who’s trying to introduce themselves to a larger electorate.

And, because of Iowa and New Hampshire laws, change isn’t expected to be easy.

Existing state laws make primary order pretty tough to change

The thing about Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s positioning in the primary is that it is protected by state laws.

Both states’ laws explicitly lay out when the caucus or primary will take place: Iowa’s says that its caucuses must happen eight days before any other state’s proceedings, while New Hampshire’s guarantees that its primary will always be first.

“I mean, none of Iowa, New Hampshire, nor South Carolina are going to unilaterally change state laws protecting their positions on the calendar,” Josh Putnam, a lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, told Vox. “That just is not going to happen.”

Updates to the primary calendar will only take place if the Democratic National Committee tries to push for them, Scala tells Vox.

And experts don’t think this will occur in the near term. “Given that both political parties have rules that protect the timing of primaries — ensuring the continued hegemony of early states — I don’t see this changing anytime soon,” says Howard University political science professor Niambi Carter.

At the end of every presidential cycle, the nomination process is reexamined by the Democratic National Committee, which could be an opportunity for potential discussion of changes, particularly if the Democratic candidate doesn’t wind up winning in November.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren meets Iowa voters in Indianola, Iowa on February 2, 2020.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Scala says the DNC could impose penalties in order to pressure states to change their schedule, a method that’s been used by the Republican National Committee in the past. These penalties could include dinging candidates who campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier in the race, a move that would deter them from participating in these primaries, forcing states to reconsider their timing.

Another complicating factor, of course, is the Republican primary, which would likely have to change as well given the degree of resources and planning that each state engages in to put on these elections.

The infrastructural barriers, it seems, would pose a massive obstacle to implementing the caucus and primary reforms that many Democrats are increasingly demanding. But those demands keep getting louder.

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