The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats should end Iowa and New Hampshire’s political monopoly

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, in January 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

THE 2020 election may seem like a recent memory — for some, it is not even over — but Politico reports that Democratic Party leaders are hotly debating how to run the 2024 presidential nominating contest, and in particular whether Iowa and New Hampshire should keep their vaunted first-in-the-nation status. They should not. But the party must be careful not to do more harm than good when shifting the primary calendar. And merely reshuffling the order would be an insufficient response to the many dysfunctions the presidential nominating process has proved to have.

Iowa’s 50-year-old privilege to hold the first presidential nominating caucuses, and New Hampshire’s 100-year-old license to conduct the first primary, have become political rituals so entrenched that these states treat them as inviolable rights. Iowa and New Hampshire each have laws requiring state parties to hold nominating contests before others do. If other states try to leapfrog them, they just move their events even further forward. These states defend their advantage by arguing that their relatively small size allows voters to get up close and personal with candidates, and that their voters have developed over the decades a sense of responsibility to thoroughly vet the options. The most successful candidates are not necessarily the ones who have the most money for bombing the airwaves with ads, but those who can explain themselves and their policies at town hall meetings.

But Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of Democratic voters writ large and of the nation as a whole, and they are not the only states in which retail politics is possible. Both are extremely White. Both, but particularly New Hampshire, have proved susceptible to the leftward pull of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) among White progressives, leaving it to more diverse states such as South Carolina to pull the party back toward where its mainstream voters are. Their perpetual first-in-the-nation status has propped up support for federal subsidies for corn ethanol and home heating oil, as aspiring presidents must promise such payoffs to their voters every four to eight years.

There are other options. One idea is to allow South Carolina, the first Southern state to vote, to go first. The state’s electorate is far more diverse, and it has a better recent record of reflecting the Democratic voters’ ultimate preferences. Nevada Democrats want their first-in-the-West state to take the lead. There are other conceivable candidates. What Democratic leaders should avoid is scheduling an early “Super Tuesday” in which many states vote simultaneously at the front of the calendar. They should also decline to give the first slot to a massive, expensive state such as California or New York. Some opportunity must exist for gifted politicians who lack war chests to break out.

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The party must also offer no privileges to states that continue to use unfair and unfixable caucus systems to select presidential delegates, which would rule out Nevada, unless the state moved to a primary. Caucuses are long affairs in which there is no secret ballot and plenty of peer pressure, so they tend to draw only the most fervent participants and discourage independent thinking.

The Democratic National Committee should dock delegates from states that insist on continuing to hold caucuses. It should do the same for Iowa and New Hampshire if they refuse to give up their first-in-the-nation status to other worthy candidates.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Shift the primary focus away from New Hampshire and Iowa

The Post’s View: Why the Iowa caucuses are unfair and undemocratic

Paul Waldman: Why do we live under the tyranny of Iowa and New Hampshire?

Jennifer Rubin: Advice to Democrats: Forget Iowa and New Hampshire

Christina Greer: Forget Iowa. Georgia should be the first state to vote.

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