Political bravery is not often the hallmark of a Democratic presidential primary. More often, this early part of a presidential campaign is the venue for incredibly cautious, patronizing position-staking, where candidates try to go just left enough to please a Democratic electorate while leaving room to veer right for the general election (the same in reverse doesn’t seem to be as true for Republicans, interestingly enough). This election cycle has seen many candidates embrace policies that the centrist consultant class, their media allies, and the Democratic speaker of the House will warn over and over again are not popular in the heartland, shunning the conventional wisdom about what voters want. Yet it wasn’t until last week that one candidate took a truly brave stance: Man, screw Iowa and New Hampshire.
In an interview with MSNBC, Julián Castro made the perfectly reasonable argument that the order of the states in the Democratic primary is demographically “not reflective of the U.S. as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party,” and that “we do need to change the order of the states” in the primary process. Days later, he elaborated in an interview with Vogue:
We can’t go around thanking black women for powering Democrats to victory all over the country, and then at the same time hold our first caucus and our first primary in states that have almost no African-Americans. We’re right to call Republicans out when they suppress the votes of African-Americans or Latinos, but we’ve also got to recognize that this 50-year-old process was created during a time when minority voices had zero power in the party.
Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, dodged the issue with barely contained hostility when she was given a similar opportunity to sound off. At a forum in South Carolina, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman asked Warren if the order of the states should change, and Warren cut her off, saying: “Before you finish, are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?” (Apparently...yes?) Her actual answer was even shorter and less satisfying: “I’m just a player in the game on this one.” So much for big structural change.
It is remarkable that the entitled residents of these two states—Warren said their positions in the primary process are “what Iowa and New Hampshire are all about,” whatever that means—have such sway over the Democratic primary process and, by extension, America and the world. Around 171,000 people participated in Iowa’s 2016 Democratic caucuses, and about 250,000 people voted in the New Hampshire primary. A group of people roughly the size of Minneapolis has immense influence over an election in which 30 million Americans voted in 2016. Iowa, a state that became first in the process around 50 years ago has essentially managed to maintain an iron grip on the Democratic primary process, purely through willpower and political extortion.
Naturally, it’s not true that Warren is “just a player in the game”—she is a frontrunner candidate for the most powerful office in the world. Nevertheless, it is hard to blame Warren, or any of the other top-tier candidates who have been slow to support Castro’s proposal, for not taking a stand. Their fears are justified: The spoiled voters of these two early states might very well respond to such criticism by withholding their support. And that support is critical in an environment where the media will quickly anoint the winners of those first contests with “momentum”—a distinction that will set the ensuing political narrative and shift expectations considerably. Despite the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire offer a paltry haul of delegates that will hardly matter in the final reckoning, these are must-win contests. Why would Warren, or Sanders, or Biden put their candidacies at risk when the downsides are so high and the upside—reordering the primary process to improve American democracy—is so abstract? Forget Medicare for All; the really tough sell is telling Iowans that the party’s over.
It is nevertheless the case that if you were tasked with designing a Democratic presidential primary from scratch, with no weight of tradition or precedent and no previous privileged positions to consider, there is absolutely no reason why you would pick Iowa and New Hampshire to go first. They are, as Goodman pointed out, extremely white and very rural; New Hampshire has the second oldest population in the country, after Maine. They have nothing to recommend them over any other state. Why Iowa and not Indiana? Why New Hampshire and not New Jersey? Why, more importantly, these states instead of larger, more representative, more diverse, more urban states? Why not California, the biggest state in the union, one of the most progressive states, and a state under urgent and desperate threat from climate change? Why not Texas, a state that could vote for a Democratic president in the next decade with genuine investment from the national party and has one of the youngest populations? Why not North Carolina, which at least has good food?
There are many different ways the Democratic primary system could be organized. Iowa and New Hampshire could retain their status as season openers, but the length of time between their electoral contests and the next states could be shortened, so that Super Tuesday follows in a fortnight. Or, the order of the states’ contests could be randomly assigned each and every presidential cycle. This would invite the same irksome situation in which a few states’ demographic peculiarities govern the destiny of the country, but either of these models would free us from the enforced monolithic importance of Iowa and New Hampshire—two states that ended up being first by happenstance.
The primary could be held nationally, all on one day—you know, like a presidential election? If the national primary was late enough, it might have the blessed effect of shortening the length of the campaign. Opponents of such a scheme have a complaint they’ll cheerfully offer: A national primary brings with it the downside of increasing the already ridiculous (and democratically damaging) amount of money that candidates have to raise if they have to compete nationally in expensive television markets. This, critics say, will maximize the advantages of the candidates most able to tap the veins of riches on offer from wealthy donors. Nevertheless, the supposed advantages of the status quo, in which less-affluent candidates can overcome their skint campaign coffers by excelling at “retail politics” at diners in Iowa, doesn’t offer much to a Texan without Medicaid who never gets a chance to question the candidates.
Interestingly enough, what America’s primary process problem suggests is that we have an excellent argument for the total public financing of elections staring us right in the face. And this is why some bolder thinking is welcome, because any path to remaking the country in a more just and equal image must involve reinvigorating the stated values of the Democratic Party as well. Dispensing with this antiquated system can be viewed as part of an overall mission to foster more democratic equality. Julián Castro is onto something: A party that supposedly prides itself on diversity, economic equality, and the representation of marginalized communities can’t really defend leaving Iowa and New Hampshire to dictate its future. Besides, everyone involved can stand to eat fewer corn dogs.