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Apple ’21: The DNC needs to rethink the primary order

On Feb. 14, 2020, outgoing Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez ’83 called for the removal of Iowa and New Hampshire’s vaunted statuses as the first states in the presidential primary. While much of the focus this past cycle on these early states was on the Iowa debacle, it is clear that Iowa and New Hampshire are no longer acceptable choices as primary kingmakers: They are neither representative of the Democratic electorate nor the American population as a whole. The order of the presidential primaries plays an outsized role in determining the nominee, which is why Democrats must place more diverse and representative states first, removing unfair barriers to the presidency and ensuring a more just nomination process.

These two states hold their position at the start line due to reforms enacted by the DNC in response to the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention, instead of any rationale relevant to the shape of modern presidential races. At the convention, anti-war and civil rights protests broke out in Chicago and were met with violence from the police. In response, the DNC attempted to make the nominating process more inclusive and give more people a seat at the table. As a result, the DNC decided to stagger states’ nominating schedules to decrease the advantage that wealthier candidates had. Iowa, with a complex process necessitating an early start, was chosen to be first. New Hampshire, on the other hand, has been the first primary (Iowa is a caucus) since 1920, and in 1948 became the first state to allow citizens to vote directly for presidential candidates. In 1972, the same year that Iowa gained its powerful position, New Hampshire was codified by the DNC as the first primary, a title it has held ever since.

These two states, and the few after, set the tone for the entire campaign, even though they make up a small percentage of the nation. New Hampshire has long been perceived as an early test of the viability of a candidate’s campaign. In 1952, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee challenged incumbent President Harry Truman for the Democratic nomination, and his victory over Truman in the New Hampshire primary knocked the president out of the race. In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly beat President Lyndon Baines Johnson in New Hampshire, which prompted Johnson to also announce he would not seek another term. Both Iowa and New Hampshire gave Jimmy Carter the edge he needed to win the nomination in 1976. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that after John Kerry won both Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004, his national polling numbers jumped by 37 points, setting the former underdog up to win the nomination. Since 1972, only three non-incumbent presidents, George McGovern, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden have won their party’s nomination without winning at least one of these two states. Biden’s eventual nomination was in part due to the momentum he gained from winning the fourth state in line, South Carolina.

That these early states can single-handedly swing the nomination is an issue, particularly considering that they are highly unrepresentative of the U.S. electorate. New Hampshire and Iowa are two of the seven whitest states in the nation, with white people making up over 90 percent of their populations. When a FiveThirtyEight study ranked every single state by its similarity to the Democratic electorate, New Hampshire and Iowa came in 34th and 42nd place, respectively. Clearly, the current system isn’t working — overwhelmingly white states and voters receive undue precedence to decide the presidential nominee. 

This order has also disadvantaged candidates of color and those who do not fit into the traditional definition of “electability.” While some proponents of keeping Iowa and New Hampshire first may debate this, pointing to Barack Obama’s win in 2008 in Iowa, it is but one example that can be contrasted with the many times that candidates of color were unable to win in part because of their early struggles in these states. In 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, an outside chance for the nomination, ultimately won 18 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary to finish third. However, from the very get go he was at a disadvantage: He won only 0.015 percent in Iowa and 0.05 percent in New Hampshire. If only a more diverse state had been near the top, perhaps Jackson would have performed far better. And from more recent memory, in 2020 Amy Klobuchar was able to outlast Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, although the three were even in many polls. This was likely in no small part due to Iowa and New Hampshire’s preeminence and the fact that Klobuchar was polling much higher than Booker and Harris in those homogenous, white states.

Unfortunately, existing state laws in Iowa and New Hampshire make it difficult to shift the primary order. New Hampshire law codifies it as the first in the nation primary, while Iowa’s law states that it must come eight days before any other. It is unlikely that these states will willingly cede their power. Thus, the DNC will have to step in to enact change.  There are currently few means by which it could do so — and the ones most readily available are quite draconian in nature. For example, the DNC could threaten to strip delegates from those early states or penalize candidates who campaigned in those early states. In 2008, the DNC sanctioned Florida and Michigan for holding their primaries on dates that the DNC did not find acceptable, halving the number of delegates each state could send to the convention. These approaches are admittedly both unlikely and too harsh, as they could lead to the party disenfranchising voters if the states refused to budge. However, Democrats must be willing to creatively explore all avenues, ideally using the carrot before the stick, to make their primaries more representative.

If they are able to change the order, there are three principal parameters that the party should consider. First, Democrats must pick early states that are more representative of their electorate and the U.S. electorate at large. This would create a fairer system by not overtly disadvantaging certain candidates on a demographic basis. Second, Democrats should pick states that are still relatively small in size. This would be done to allow less well-funded candidates a chance to succeed, as larger states require more funding to run a strong campaign. Third, Democrats should try to pick states that are at least somewhat competitive to actually test their candidates in battleground states. South Carolina, for example, is not going to vote Democratic for years, so its early state status is quite unhelpful for uncovering which candidate is going to be the strongest in the general election.

With these parameters in mind, there are four states that would be ideal as leaders in the 2024 primary. Nevada seems to be the easy pick for the first state. It is the fifth most demographically similar state to the Democratic electorate, it is small and Democrats only held it by a slim margin in 2020. In addition, Nevada is already an early state, which would make this change relatively seamless. In fact, Nevada Democrats have already released a statement arguing that they should become the “first presidential nominating state in 2024.” 

With Nevada chosen, we should also keep an eye on geographic diversity, ideally by picking a state each from the northeast, west, south and midwest. North Carolina, New Jersey and Illinois all make good candidates. While no southern states satisfy all three parameters fully, North Carolina is relatively demographically similar, not too large and was extremely competitive in 2020. Its largest fault is a lack of Latino voters, but Nevada balances that out. In a WalletHub study, which took into account socio-demographics, economy, education, religion and public opinion to determine which states most mirror America as a whole, North Carolina placed ninth, second only to Virginia among southern states. New Jersey is diverse and relatively small, ranking second in the aforementioned FiveThirtyEight evaluation. And while not a battleground state, very few states in the northeast are. Finally, though Illinois is a larger state, according to both FiveThirtyEight and WalletHub it is the most representative state, and placing it fourth in line should help blunt its influence related to wealthier candidates. In addition, diverse and competitive states like Florida and Arizona (with their high Latino populations coming from countries of origin different from Nevada’s Latino voters), and Georgia (with its high Black and Asian-American population), should also come relatively early in the primary order.

The likelihood of this reform coming to fruition is still low, at the moment. However, there is certainly public will and interest within the DNC to create a fairer primary system. Iowa and New Hampshire have played an important role in the history of the presidential primary, and Democrats would do well not to outright antagonize those states. But the Democratic party owes its recent victories to voters of color, and it’s time that we endow a diverse group of voters with greater power in picking our next presidents.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at caleb_apple@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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