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3 ways to make the Iowa caucuses less influential

Iowa kicks off the presidential primary — but what if it didn’t?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s shadow is reflected on a flag as she campaigns for president in Iowa this month.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the 2020 Democratic field for president was the biggest and most diverse in history.

Twenty-eight candidates threw their hat in the ring; as the Iowa caucuses loom, just 11 are left, and two septuagenarian white men are leading the race. Among the dropouts so far are the only Hispanic candidate in the race (former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary Julián Castro) and the only two African American candidates to make a debate stage (Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker).

Castro argues that it’s Iowa’s fault. “There’s a hypocrisy about the values that we profess as Democrats in terms of being inclusive and depending on especially African American women to power our party, and yet at the same time starting our presidential nominating process in states that hardly have any black people or people of color,” Castro told Rolling Stone reporter Andy Kroll in November. “We could do it a lot better.”

Castro is far from the first to raise this concern, nor is he the only one doing so this year: Does it makes sense for Iowa (91 percent white) and New Hampshire (93 percent white) to go first in a Democratic Party that’s almost 40 percent nonwhite and that counts black voters as its most reliable constituency?

Iowa, of course, thinks it’s fine. “If we truly value democracy, hard work and giving voters a voice in this process, we will all work to preserve and protect Iowa’s incredibly unique opportunity to go first,” wrote the chairs of the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties in a joint op-ed.

Alternatives, for now, are pretty hypothetical: As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, while the Democratic National Committee protects the first four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, in that order — other than that, it’s more or less up to the states when they want to hold their primary contests. Any kind of dramatic reordering of the primary would be hard to coordinate. Bills have been introduced in Congress, but it’s not clear that Congress has the authority to dictate when primaries take place.

Still, while presidential politics have become a veritable institution in the state, deep-fried pork chops and all, the presidential primary calendar isn’t immutable. A few options have been floated to break Iowa and New Hampshire’s stranglehold on the nominating process. Here are just a few:

1) A national primary

This idea is pretty self-explanatory: Every state holds its nominating contest — mostly primaries, perhaps a few caucuses sprinkled in — on the same night, and the voters wake up the next morning knowing who their party’s nominee is. After all, we elect a president all at once, not state by state over a period of months, so why not choose our candidates the same way?

The idea for a national primary has been kicking around since 1911. Supporters argue that one national primary day would drive up voter participation, and a Monmouth University poll from last week found that 58 percent of Democratic voters nationally would support a national primary; no other option, including the current system, does better than 15 percent.

Additionally, such a system would certainly extinguish Iowa’s outsize influence; there are only 41 pledged delegates up for grabs in Iowa, compared to, say, Virginia, with its 99 pledged delegates, or California with 415.

But it also has drawbacks. Defenders of the staggered system argue that a lengthy primary is a better way to find the best general-election candidate. Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja write in the Atlantic that primaries, as they currently stand, “test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina.”

There’s also the question of money. The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that nearly 80 percent of Americans want to place limits on campaign spending, but a national presidential primary advantages those with a lot of money to throw around — your Bloombergs and your Tom Steyers. Just look at FiveThirtyEight’s national polling averages: Bloomberg, who didn’t enter the race until the end of November, isn’t contesting the Iowa caucuses and has yet to stand on a Democratic debate stage, is polling at 8.2 percent, ahead of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

As Vox’s Emily Stewart points out, this strong performance is mostly because the erstwhile New York mayor has adopted an “ad carpet bomb” strategy fueled solely by his $60.5 billion fortune — a strategy that could be even more powerful in a national race.

Others have proposed a variation on the national primary: the regional primary, where states are split into regions based on geography and some kind of drawing or rotation determines which region goes first. But as a 2016 Brookings Institution report on primary alternatives points out, the national primary has proven more popular with the public in polls than a regional option for decades.

2) Illinois takes charge

The next possible alternative to Iowa is also pretty straightforward: Just … don’t let it go first. Reshuffle the states and lead off with one that’s more diverse and thus more representative of the Democratic electorate.

FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley argues that if the Democratic Party really wanted to give the most representative cross-section of voters the first shot at picking a president, it should let Illinois lead off, and then go on to New Jersey, New York, and Florida, in that order.

To quantify what counted as “representative,” Skelley broke the 2016 national Democratic electorate into five groups — white voters with a college degree, white voters without, African American voters, Hispanic voters, and “everyone else” — and calculated a “similarity score” for each state based on how closely their demographics hewed to the national Democratic Party.

This system, like a national primary, might end up increasing the role money plays in the primary. As Skelley points out, “because it’s fundamentally harder to meet face-to-face with any measurable percentage of voters in, say, Illinois (population 12.7 million) than in Iowa (population 3.2 million), this new primary calendar would increase the importance of costly media exposure, which would probably benefit candidates who can raise a lot of money early on.”

One way to avert this would be to move a smaller state like Delaware — the ninth most similar to the national Democratic electorate, compared to No. 42 Iowa — into first place, keeping retail politics alive. Another option is changing up which state goes first every four years rather than giving any one state a permanent slot, and allowing the reporters and strategists who descend on Iowa en masse each year to see more of the country.

3) Frontloading: A race to go first

This is basically what’s already happening: Iowa still goes first. However, the other states can, and do, try to reduce its influence by moving their primaries closer to the start of the calendar.

In 2004, Brookings identified the phenomenon of “New Hampshire envy”: “the perception that New Hampshire gets an enormous range of benefits by holding the first primary in every election cycle, and that other states will benefit if they, too, can hold their primaries as close to the start of the process as possible.” That’s still abundantly relevant today.

This process, called frontloading, has been going on for a while. Since the first four primaries are protected by the Democratic National Committee, the effect has mostly been to make Super Tuesday more super.

In 2018, California, the most populous state in the US, moved its 2020 primary up to Super Tuesday, and early voting in the state will start next week, the same as the Iowa caucuses. Texas — which has the third-largest haul of pledged delegates — now also has its primary on Super Tuesday. The hope behind the move was to claim a larger role for California in the nominating process.

Unfortunately for Iowa and New Hampshire’s detractors, a side effect has been increasing Iowa’s influence rather than decreasing it.

In the rush from the Iowa caucuses on February 3 to Super Tuesday in early March, the “bounce” in polling, earned media, and fundraising that a candidate can get from a strong performance in Iowa matters even more. The Associated Press’s Nicholas Riccardi explains why: “The enormous amount of votes up for grabs [on Super Tuesday], coupled with the astronomical price tag of competing in California, may end up increasing the importance of the early states. Winners in those states are likely to receive heavy attention and, with that, donations that could fund a California operation.”

So while states like Washington may be eagerly anticipating their earlier spot in the 2020 primary calendar — which, according to Brookings fellow Elaine Kamarck in an interview with the Seattle Times, makes the state “very well-placed to get a lot of attention and to make a difference” — Iowa’s weight is in no way diminished.

As Democratic strategist Andrew Turner tells Politico, the media is “going to light into whoever does poorly in Iowa. You’ll get some staffer on background to be like, ‘The campaign’s over,’ and it’ll just be crippling.”

For now, though, the state’s power in the nominating contest is unbroken. And while a day of reckoning for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status might eventually take place, on Monday, the state — older, whiter, and endlessly enthusiastic about presidential politics — will once again have its say.