But Democrats left one major factor in their primary process untouched: a calendar that’s slanted toward the preferences of white liberals. It’s almost impossible to design a state-by-state primary process that gives equal weight to every Democratic Party constituency through a process everyone agrees is fair; the party’s coalition is too big and fractious for that. But rather than treating their calendar like something that’s been imposed upon them, Democrats should be clear-eyed about the choices they’re making, and the likely consequences of those decisions in the primary and beyond.
The first two contests are the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary: both states are more than 90 percent white, and the Democratic electorate in both contests tends to be liberal. In 2016, 68 percent of caucus-goers in Iowa were somewhat or very liberal, as were 68 percent of New Hampshire primary voters. This means that candidates with a strong, white, liberal base get two immediate chances to turn in strong performances that boost the perception that they’re highly electable.
After Iowa and New Hampshire comes Nevada, which is more racially diverse than those states. Twenty-nine percent of Nevadans are Hispanic or Latino, 10 percent are African American and about 9 percent are Asian American. Like Iowa, Nevada is a caucus state, and in caucuses, turnout tends to be low and hyper-ideological activists, such as the 70 percent of Nevada participants in the state’s 2016 caucuses who self-identified as liberal, are often over-represented. Sanders (I-Vt.), a favorite among left-leaning voters, came reasonably close to winning Nevada in 2016 despite struggling with nonwhite voters overall.
It’s true that South Carolina, a heavily African American state with more moderates, comes early in the process and, taken together, the first four states reflect national public opinion well. But South Carolina doesn’t vote in its primary until Feb. 29, only three days before Super Tuesday. As blogger Dan Guild and others have pointed out, that means the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire will get weeks of favorable news coverage before delegate-rich states begin to vote. The winner in South Carolina will get only a few days.
The problem in these four early states isn’t demographic diversity — national polls and polls in the four early states paint similar pictures of the race — it’s timing. A candidate who wins in Iowa or New Hampshire but fares comparatively poorly with black voters — such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — could use momentum from these early states to improve her standing in South Carolina. African American voters are famously pragmatic, and Warren might look like a more electable, practical choice if she wins a couple primaries before facing off against former vice president Joe Biden in the South. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in Iowa was likely crucial to his nomination. He ended up pushing both the Democratic Party and American health-care policy significantly to the left, thanks in part to those Iowa voters. If the order of primaries was reshuffled in either race, the final result might be different.
That scenario isn’t inevitable. Biden could watch the more liberal candidates split the first three states, hold on to his national lead, look like the comeback kid after winning South Carolina and knock it out of the park on Super Tuesday. The calendar is just one of many factors that will influence the outcome. But Biden’s path to the nomination would be easier if the first two states weren’t so full of white liberals who may be more inclined to support someone such as Sanders or Warren.
The shape of the calendar doesn’t just help liberals. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has positioned himself a comparatively moderate, Midwestern alternative to Warren, has created a base with upscale whites and has maintained a strong position in Iowa. Buttigieg has a route to the nomination partially because Iowa is so early; if he wins there, he could potentially convince other voters that he’s the electable alternative to Sanders or Warren. If the order of the early states were reversed, Buttigieg’s path would be narrower and we might be talking more about Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s (Calif.) long-shot-but-still-possible path to the nomination.
It’s easy to treat the primary order as though it’s a fact of nature, rather than the result of human choices. But Democrats chose to keep white, liberal states ahead of the rest and the downstream effect is an easier path to the nomination for candidates such as Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg. If they want to change their process and try to eliminate this tilt in 2024 or 2028, they can. But this year, they’ve given upscale white liberals an advantage.