The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden wants to fix the messy primary process. Here’s what should happen.

A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa caucuses in a downtown skywalk in Des Moines on Feb. 4, 2020. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The quirky, tradition-bound way in which political parties select their presidential standard-bearers has become less and less reflective of the dynamic, vast and diverse country the nation’s chief executive will lead. But the Democratic National Committee, whose rules and bylaws committee begins a two-day meeting on Friday, might at last be taking some steps toward a more rational process.

The Post’s Michael Scherer and Tyler Pager reported Thursday night that the president has written a letter asking the DNC to make South Carolina the first primary state, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada the next week and Georgia and Michigan after that — a move that shocked party leaders. Crucially, he also suggested that the national Democratic Party should review the calendar every four years. If Democrats accept this plan, it would break the decades-long hold a pair of privileged states have had on at the party’s presidential nomination process.

The current primary system gives outsize influence — and the ability to winnow the field — to leadoff states Iowa and New Hampshire, two small and homogeneous places that are not reflective of the population or the interests of a wide swath of the country. Candidates pander to them, and Americans pay the price — for instance, with politically untouchable subsidies for corn ethanol and home heating oil. Nor have the two leadoff states been particularly shrewd at picking winners lately; in 2020, Mr. Biden came in fourth in Iowa and limped out of New Hampshire after placing fifth. It took a near-miraculous save by Black voters in South Carolina (fourth on the calendar) to put the former vice president back in the race. Mr. Biden now wants to repay the supporters without whom he would not be president.

The 2020 experience — which included a massive technology meltdown on the night of the Iowa caucuses — was enough to jolt the party into considering making significant changes in the calendar, something it has not done since 2006. In April, the DNC invited states to apply for the four traditional early spots in the run-up to Super Tuesday, the day a large number of states hold primaries. Twenty jurisdictions applied; 17 were finalists.

Under Mr. Biden’s proposal, Iowa would not be one of the states selected, a move that would have been unthinkable just four years ago. Iowa’s defenders argue that its voters do the nation a service that only a small state with an inexpensive media market can, by giving fresh faces and under-resourced candidates a chance to make their cases to an engaged electorate in living rooms and coffee shops throughout the state. Iowa elevated former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 and freshman senator Barack Obama in 2008, both of whom went on to win the presidency despite starting as underdogs.

But Iowa is Whiter, older and more rural than the nation at large. And its idiosyncratic, confusing caucus system — which requires people to spend hours haggling with their neighbors on a single night in the middle of winter — is hardly a democratic ideal. When the state Democratic Party’s smartphone app for tabulating results failed in 2020, it took weeks to certify a winner. Iowa Democrats have proposed tweaking the caucus procedures, including making it possible for people who cannot attend in person to mail in their preferences, but they apparently have not proven persuasive, given the Hawkeye State’s other drawbacks and recent history.

Democratic leaders in recent years have encouraged states to ditch caucuses entirely. And indeed, that is happening. In the 2016 Democratic presidential race, 14 states conducted caucuses. The number declined to three in 2020. Since then, Nevada has also moved to a primary system. On the Republican side, the number went from 13 caucus states in 2016 to five in 2020. The parties should continue to press for the elimination of caucuses — and their replacement with well-run primary elections.

Moving Iowa out of the way and instituting fairer voting would be small improvements, but they would not solve all of the problems of the nominating process. Putting New Hampshire second brings many of the same drawbacks Iowa does, particularly in its lack of diversity, though its compact size retains the intimacy of in-person politicking. Giving Nevada an early spot would bring in a more ethnically mixed electorate, but one whose economic interests are closely tied to the gaming, entertainment and hospitality industries.

A bolder reform might be to shuffle which states get to go earliest, perhaps with the national parties running a lottery before each presidential campaign season. Presumably, big states with expensive media markets would be excluded from that first batch, so that candidates without name recognition and large war chests would get a shot at catching fire. After the lucky early states voted, groups of big and small states, also randomly selected, could conduct their primaries in turn.

Radically reforming the presidential nomination process would require coordination — and overcoming the jealousies — among state-level parties, state lawmakers and national political party organizations. Incremental reform is more likely. Yet Mr. Biden has started the conversation as he encourages the party to regularly shift around the primary calendar, and gives it an initial push by proposing to dethrone Iowa and put New Hampshire second. The DNC should listen.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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