Democrats kick off their presidential primaries and caucuses with February contests in four states. These states are small, contributing just 155 pledged delegates out of the Democratic total of 3,979, but they have an outsized role in the narratives that can determine the eventual nominee.

Tue., Feb 11

Sat., Feb 22

New Hampshire

primary

Nevada

caucuses

Mon., Feb 3

Iowa

caucuses

Sat., Feb 29

South Carolina

primary

Tue., Feb 11

New Hampshire

primary

Sat., Feb 22

Mon., Feb 3

Nevada

caucuses

Iowa

caucuses

Sat., Feb 29

South Carolina

primary

In 2008, Barack Obama broke out of the pack with a surprisingly decisive Iowa win, putting him in a front-runner position he never relinquished. In 2016, Hillary Clinton countered a major victory by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire with wins in Nevada and South Carolina, establishing a lead among nonwhite voters that guided her to eventual victory.

None of the four states fully reflect America, and the least representative two go first. Taken together, though, the unique qualities of each mean several key blocs of voters get at least one opportunity to have an outsized role in the early nomination process.

The nomination starts rural, but then gets more urban

Large metro areas >1M

Other metros <1M

Small town

Rural

Iowa

Sioux City

Cedar Rapids

Des Moines

New Hampshire

Manchester

Nevada

Reno

Las Vegas

South Carolina

Greenville

Columbia

Charleston

Large metro areas >1M

Other metros <1M

Small town

Rural

Iowa

New Hampshire

Nevada

South Carolina

Greenville

Sioux City

Reno

Columbia

Cedar Rapids

Des Moines

Charleston

Las Vegas

Manchester

Large metro areas >1M

Other metros <1M

Small town

Rural

Iowa

New Hampshire

Nevada

South Carolina

Greenville

Sioux City

Reno

Columbia

Cedar Rapids

Des Moines

Charleston

Las Vegas

Manchester

More than half of Americans live in a large metropolitan area of more than a million people. But none of the February primary states fall near that average. Just one in 16 Americans lives in a rural county, and yet the nomination process begins in one of the most rural states in the nation. In fact, each of the four early states overrepresents a different kind of community.

United States population

Small town

8%

6

Metro 30%

Large metro areas 56%

Rural

Iowa

59%

16%

25%

New Hampshire

32%

31%

34%

4

Nevada

73%

17%

8%

South Carolina

8%

77%

9%

6

Population distribution by counties

If Iowa gives rural voters a chance to be heard, New Hampshire is all about small towns; areas with towns of over 10,000 account for about a third of the state’s population.

Nevada falls at the other extreme: It is one of the most urbanized populations in the United States. The state’s wide-open spaces are mostly empty of people, and three quarters of the state’s population is packed into Las Vegas. South Carolina is uniquely urbanized in a different way. With no giant metro, South Carolina leads the nation with people in suburbs and smaller cities.

The last two have some diversity, but Iowa and New Hampshire do not


Former vice president Joe Biden at a campaign event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Jan. 27. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Minorities have little representation in the first two contests. States do not get much more heavily white than Iowa, with caucuses on Feb. 3 , and New Hampshire, which follows with a primary on Feb. 11.

United States population

Black

Other

White 61%

18%

12%

Hispanic

Asian

Iowa

86%

6

3

New Hampshire

90%

4

Nevada

50%

29%

9%

8%

South Carolina

64%

6

27%

More diversity enters the picture on Feb. 22 with the Nevada caucuses. Nevada has one of the highest concentrations of Hispanics in the nation, and South Carolina follows on Feb. 29 as one of the states with the highest share of African Americans. Nevada is one of the least white states in the country. While South Carolina still has roughly the same white population as the United States overall, the strong Democratic lean of its black voters means the primary is much more nonwhite than the state.

The position of the last two states in the February primary calendar is recent history. The Democratic Party moved them up for the 2008 election to offset the lack of diversity of New Hampshire and Iowa, and to represent more regions of the United States. In a Democratic National Committee vote, Nevada was selected over Arizona, and South Carolina was chosen over Alabama.

Older Democrats are overrepresented

Older adults, always among the most regular voters, play an oversized role in the earliest contests. Over a third of registered Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire are age 65 or older, well above the U.S. average.

Jobs in

goods

industries

Median

household

income

Registered Democrats

College

education

< 25 years old

65+

9%

26%

32%

$60K

19%

US

IA

7

34

25

28

59K

NH

38

2

20

37

74K

NV

9

26

13

24

58K

SC

24

51K

9

21

27

Jobs in

goods

industries

Median

household

income

Registered Democrats

College

education

< 25 years old

65+

32%

9%

26%

19%

$60K

United States

Iowa

7%

34%

25%

28%

$59K

New Hampshire

38%

2%

20%

37%

$74K

Nevada

26%

$58K

9%

13%

24%

South Carolina

9%

24%

21%

27%

$51K

Workers in goods-producing industries like manufacturing and agriculture are also quite common in the early states, especially in Iowa and South Carolina. They may provide an insight into who could do well among blue-collar voters in key Midwestern swing states. But Nevada ranks near the bottom on workers who make or grow products. Service workers, who make up a lion’s share of the national economy but get less attention politically — are the stars in Nevada, where Las Vegas union members are a critical voting block.

So who may be underrepresented in February? With the exception of New Hampshire, the residents of the early states have disproportionately lower income and levels of education. None of the states rank high in young registered Democrats, and workers in non-goods industries like technology or trade get short shrift as well.

Few voters participate


Democratic presidential candidates Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii); former vice president Joe Biden; Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; and billionaire activist Tom Steyer walk in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Columbia, S.C. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

More than 12 million Americans live in these first four states. But the number of eligible voters is smaller, and the number that actually participates in the Democratic nominating process is smaller still.

In 2016, only about 900,000 Americans were part of these Democratic primaries and caucuses, placing critical decisions in the hands of about as many people as live in Columbus, Ohio.

Fewer Democrats participated in primaries than voted for Clinton in 2016

Each circle represents 10,000 votes

Primary/caucus

votes

Clinton

Votes

Iowa

172,000

654,000

New Hampshire

251,000

349,000

Nevada

84,000

539,000

South Carolina

369,000

855,000

4 early states combined

876,000

2,397,000

Fewer Democrats participated in primaries than voted for Clinton in 2016

Each circle represents 10,000 votes

Primary/caucus

votes

Clinton

Votes

172,000

654,000

Iowa

251,000

349,000

New Hampshire

84,000

539,000

Nevada

369,000

855,000

South Carolina

4 early states

combined

876,000

2,397,000

Why the big differences in turnout between the states? Iowa and Nevada hold caucuses, a time-intensive and extremely public method of voting that can drive people away. The Iowa and Nevada caucuses are both closed, but both do allow for same-day registration (with Nevada making the switch in 2019).

New Hampshire and South Carolina hold primaries instead. Those primaries are also open, meaning you do not need to be a registered Democrat to participate.

In 2016, these early states made up just 3 percent Democratic primary voters. Yet their early influence far exceeded those numbers. In 2020 they set the stage for the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, when 14 states with about 26 million Democratic registered voters will have their say.

Where the race stands in the next two primary and caucus states

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are now over, if not conclusive. So candidates are moving on to the next two early states.

About this story: This story is based on population demographics from the American Community Survey, voter registration data from L2 and election results from the Associated Press and the Elections Project.