Chatroom: Which State Should Go First in the Primary?

After the disastrous Iowa Caucuses in 2020, there has been increased scrutiny of the first-in-the-nation competitions in the party primaries. Iowa (with the first caucus) and New Hampshire (with the first primary) are both disproportionately (90%) white, rural and not very representative of the nation as a whole.

The 2020 Democratic nominee and now president Joe Biden did not win either state, but his more diverse coalition saved his campaign when the primary moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, both states that had more significant Asian, Latinx, or Black populations and a more diverse swath of voters.

This past week, legislation was introduced in the Nevada Assembly to convert its caucus into a primary and assert itself as the first state in the primary calendar. Despite being much more representative of the nation as a whole, Iowa and New Hampshire are fighting back hard, and we wanted to take this time to reflect on the primary calendar and some potential changes that could be made. Which we’re doing in The Postrider‘s first ever Chatroom.

[This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity]

Lars Emerson (State & Science Editor): So, here today is Michael Lovito, our editor-in-chief.

Michael Lovito (Editor-in-Chief): Hello.

Lars: And myself! Your State & Science editor and passionate primary follower.

So Michael, why don’t you kick us off with hey, should we change it at all? Or should Iowa and then New Hampshire go first forever?

Michael: Well, I’ll start off with something I think we can both agree on, which is that whichever states go first, the parties need to get rid of caucuses. They’re exclusionary and complicated, and a lot of former caucus states (like your old home of Colorado) have already moved on to primaries

Lars: Yes, totally with you there. Caucuses are nightmares, but it seems like they’re on the way out anyway.

Michael: And it’s worth pointing out too that they aren’t constitutionally mandated like the Electoral College. While they’re mandated by state law in Iowa, that’s only been the case since 1972. Our parents are older than the Iowa caucuses! New Hampshire has a similar law about primaries as well

Lars: It’s like if New Jersey passed a law saying “we always have to get vaccines before other states” but then for some reason the government went along with it because “oh well they have this law… can’t step around that”

But I digress…

Michael: Yes, anyway, I’m avoiding the central question. Would it make sense for a more diverse, less rural state than Iowa to have the first presidential nominating contest? Absolutely it would. But part of me wonders if we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the Iowa caucuses weren’t such a disaster in 2020, and if we would have felt differently if Biden had won them. Because between 1996 and 2016 (and keep in mind that a fair bit of uncompetitive caucuses happened in that time frame), the eventual Democratic nominee did, in fact, end up winning in Iowa.

It’s actually the Republican caucuses that have had the worse track record selecting a nominee in recent years, with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz winning in 2008, 2012, and 2016, respectively, which is especially ironic considering that Iowa looks a lot more like the Republican base than the Democratic one.

So I guess my question is, 1. What is the goal of reshuffling the primary calendar, and 2. Are we sure it’s as broken as we think it is?

Lars: Well that’s a great transition into kind of the other side of this, is should it change for both parties, should the primary calendar be standardized for both parties, and should there be more of a top-down primary system as oppose to the state-up system we have?

Having Iowa go first is clearly detrimental on the Democratic side, it’s just not reflecting of the Democratic electorate at all.

People spout off all the time that it allows Democrats to learn “retail campaigning” in a small state and that Iowans are “experienced” vetters of candidates who are better equipped than other voters to choose which makes me roll my eyes.

Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa primary in 2020 but he was clearly not the best suited candidate to win nationally.

As for the Republicans, as you pointed out, Iowa hasn’t actually chosen their eventual nominee in quite some time, since Bush in 2000 actually (keep in mind their winners since have been… Huckabee in 08, Santorum in ’12, and then “Flyin'” Ted “Cancun” Cruz in ’16).

But I generally believe states should have both parties go on the same day. Though the parties should be free to choose different mechanisms for voting and delegate allocation (more winner-take-all in the GOP’s case, proportional in the Democratic case), it allows some innovation and has been very helpful on the Democratic side especially.

Michael: Yes, as someone who follows and occasionally writes about these things, I think I’d go insane if the parties decided to hold their primaries/caucuses on different dates.

Lars: Yeah, political reporters across the world plead — do not do that.

Michael: So, I think where I stand on Iowa (and I guess New Hampshire), is that 1. for Democrats they are not representative of their base and should probably not go first, but 2. I think that we’re overreacting a little bit to what happened a year ago, unless you think that the reason the Democrats lost in 2004 and 2016 was because John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were worse nominees than John Edwards and Bernie Sanders, but I know at the very least that you don’t hold that opinion.

But let’s entertain some hypotheticals: assuming only one state gets to go first, which should it be? This may be controversial, but I don’t think it should be Nevada or South Carolina, either!

Lars: Oh forgive me for thinking John Kerry would have been a better president than John Edwards… 😆

But I actually think that’s a case against Iowa! Kerry-Edwards was a very close race in Iowa when it was not nationally, and same with Clinton-Sanders. Iowa actually favored Edwards and Sanders relative to the nation at large, whereas Kerry and Clinton were stronger candidates and more representative of the party overall!

But so you asked what should it be, if not Iowa…

So I’m at first drawn to FiveThirtyEight’s article which orders each state by demographic similarity to the Democratic Party at large and notes Illinois is the most similar.

Illinois is… much bigger than Iowa or NH, obviously, which I think poses its own problems, which is why I think it’s not my final choice. But it has a major city, rural areas, 22% Black, 9% Hispanic, and a good mix of those with a college degree and those without one, it’s much more aligned with the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

Michael: I’m obliged to point that number two on the list is my home state, the Great State of New Jersey, and even before reading this article I was thinking that it might be a good first state for similar reasons. It’s home to a significant African-American and Latin American community, as well as the kind of middle class suburbs that handed Biden his win against Trump in 2020. If you were looking for a microcosm of the Democratic base, it’s not a bad choice…

Lars: It’s not! They’re both fairly large, which means they’re expensive to campaign in, and it’s less personal than in say… Iowa 😑

So I kind of have a different idea… unless you want to make a very strong case for one particular state?

Michael: I think my case is New Jersey! It’s got a lot of people but it’s compact area wise and is fairly representative as the party as a whole.

Lars: Okay let’s talk about that then because there are some big hurdles there.

So the problem is, and this is great because I get to use one of my favorite maps in the world…

New Jersey falls into two media markets. And they’re two of the most expensive media markets in the country: New York and Philadelphia. It literally does not have its own media market. It would be untenable for anyone without pretty significant (Bloomberg or Sanders level) funding to have any play there.

I agree that demographically NJ has a good case, but it is very different and less accessible than Illinois in this way specifically. In Illinois, Chicago is one of many media markets, there are also several others in the state (Peoria, Springfield, Rockford, St. Louis, Quincy, Harrisburg, etc.) that are not so expensive.

Michael: Fair enough. But is Illinois your pick for number one?

I think if it had to be one state, Illinois is a pretty good choice. Certainly for the Democrats… but I think it’s similar enough for the nation as a whole that it’s probably a good idea for Republicans too. It’d do that party some good to have to have candidates campaign in cities as well as suburbs and rural areas (same with Democrats, for that matter, but in the inverse)

But if I’m the kingmaker and decided of all in primary world. And if I can stretch this a little bit, I think you have to start the primary with several states. No one state should go first, but maybe four should?

Basically, at the beginning of the year — and hey, make an event of it! Gamify the primaries a little! — you do a drawing of one state from each region (Northeast, South, Midwest, and West) and one state from each goes all on one day. And then a week or two later, the next state from each goes.

This is a good way to ensure a diversity of states, ensure no one state goes first, and makes it as close to fair as it can be — while allowing different candidates the choice of where to prioritize.

Michael: I think I tend to agree with this approach — the messed up thing about the primary system is that it was never really meant to work this way. The first primaries were really “beauty contests” that potential nominees would run in to show that they were viable electorally, but in most cases the results were non-binding — Hubert Humphrey didn’t even run in any primaries in 1968! So what you have now is a weird sort of combination audition and election, where candidates try to prove that they’re a viable general election nominee by performing well with the party’s base…it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it.

In lieu of a same day, popular vote primary (which I know you’re vehemently opposed to but I’m not all the way out on), I think a “sampling” of states from across the country holding primaries over the course of a few weeks makes the most sense and balances it all out.

Lars: Yeah, exactly.

We’d have to rebalance the “regions”. Like, put Maryland, Delaware, and DC in the “Northeast”, since they’re not really the “South” culturally anymore, and include the territories (who do vote in the party primaries) logically, so Puerto Rico could be the South but Guam would be the West.

And yes, there would technically be a chance that California, New York, Illinois, and Texas are all drawn as the “first four” primaries — which would be a bummer. But more likely you’d get like a New Mexico-Virgin Islands-Michigan-Connecticut primary. Which is a pretty good mix of things!

And candidates could say “hey well I’ll probably do well in Michigan but not so much in Connecticut” so it helps bring back the diversity of candidacies that I think the Iowa caucuses has really done a disservice to.

Michael: Part of me does wonder — would this approach drag out the process and maybe even lead to more contested conventions? Will it be harder for one candidate to pull away?

Lars: That is a good point. I think not so much in the GOP with their winner-take-all system.

But I think it also discourages fringe candidates, since everyone enters the race you know a year before anything even happens and then only at the start of the year do we find out the schedule.

You’d have to have some semblance of national viability to have a shot; and yeah, you could be the beloved governor of Nebraska and then your state is one of the first four, and that’s awesomely lucky for you, but that doesn’t mean you played so well in Florida and Rhode Island that same day, unless you chose to go there and campaign too and they ended up liking you.

It also means all of these months and months of investment in one state are meaningless, right? So it could even be more accessible to candidates who haven’t spent two years deploying an army to Iowa.

Michael: Well, that leads me to another question: Do we think any change is likely to happen? Or are the Iowa and New Hampshire lobbies too strong within either party?

Lars: I’ve been watching the Nevada drama, Nevada definitely has a better case to go first than Iowa just in terms of diversity and handling their elections way better. But I think you’d have to have the party come down on Iowa for it to change it since Iowa’s law requires its caucus take place eight days before any other state’s election.

But if the DNC and all of its prospective candidates in 2028 say leaned on Iowa and said “we aren’t going to go here first”, then maybe? Momentum is pretty hard to find for stuff like that though, and it almost becomes a game theory problem. Any one candidate who then decides to go to Iowa and eschew the party means they all have to rush back there.

The DNC could do something like decide delegates from Iowa will be almost worthless, but you still get a lot of media attention from winning the first contest, which is incentive enough to go.

We seem to agree we’re due for change, but do you think it’s going to happen?

Michael: Not really. My feelings on Iowa and New Hampshire at this point are a lot like my feelings on cigarettes: We all know they’re a bad idea, but there’s too much money and influence involved to ever do away with them for good. Maybe Iowa moves to a primary, but both of those states’ identities are so wrapped up in their “first in the nation” status. They might have to make some sort of compromise with the parties, but I don’t think anything too radical is going to happen. Heck, even if Nevada moves their primary to January 1st, I wouldn’t put it past Iowa and New Hampshire to move their contests to December.

Lars: Yeah I agree. Well, what an uplifting way to wrap up our first chat. “Nothing will change”.

Any parting thoughts or headlines or are we doomed to live in Iowa’s America forever?

Michael: I think that about sums it up for me — I look forward to lots of hate mail from Iowans and New Hampshirites in the coming days.

Lars: Haha yeah, well, thank goodness there aren’t many of them to begin with…

I think I’d sum this up with noting that of the last seven presidents, only two of them actually won Iowa in their primaries.

Michael: And yet five of them would end up winning Iowa at least once in their general election. Elections — they make no sense!