Why Do Iowa and New Hampshire, 2 of the Nation’s Least Diverse States, Get to Vote First?

December 6, 2019by Todd J. Gillman
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttiegieg appears on November 2, 2019, at the Finkenauer Fish Fry in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Guess which Democrat leads the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, and which one has launched a crusade challenging the tradition of holding the first presidential skirmishes in two of the nation’s least diverse and most rural states.

“Iowa has had its caucus since 1972. We’ve changed a lot as a country in almost 50 years,” said Julián Castro, a former housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, and the only Hispanic candidate for president in 2020. “I’ve gotten asked more about ethanol in Iowa than I ever have about mass transit or transportation or other big blockbuster issues.”

And here’s Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., stumping last week in Iowa: “We’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of states, but I believe that if Iowa supports me, then that will put us on the trajectory straight to the nomination and to the White House.”

Iowa’s precinct caucuses drew little notice for decades. Then, in 1972, the state Democratic Party decided to hold them six full weeks before the primary in New Hampshire, which has led the nominating calendar since 1920.

The road to the White House is littered with candidates who failed to impress voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, or refused to compete there.

It would be easy to dismiss Castro’s complaint as sour grapes from a basement-dweller, and to chalk up Buttigieg’s fealty to the status quo as self-interested expedience. In fact, the debate over the outsize influence those states enjoy comes to life every four years.

But while grumbling is perennial, there’s nothing close to consensus on what a better system would look like.


These are two of the whitest states in America. Nationwide, 60% of the populace is white. In New Hampshire, it’s 90%. In Iowa, it’s 85%. They rank fourth and sixth among the states.

By comparison, Texas’ population is 41% white, lower than every state but New Mexico, California and Hawaii.

Growth in Iowa and New Hampshire is anemic too. By income, age distribution, education — pick a metric — these aren’t microcosms of America.

Castro has made the case over and over in recent weeks, including directly to Iowans, that this should disqualify them from going first. Despite his complaints, he’s not boycotting the state, campaigning the weekend before Thanksgiving in Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Storm Lake and Sioux City.

“This issue is a lot bigger than me,” he said while stumping in Atlanta ahead of a televised debate he didn’t qualify for. “It’s really about reflecting the values that we say we have as Democrats where everybody has a place at the table, and making the mistake of putting our nominating contest in the hands of two states that hardly have any black people, or hardly have any people of color.”

But demographics don’t dictate outcomes.

Iowa’s caucuses propelled Barack Obama to become the first black nominee and the first black president in 2008, and Hillary Clinton to become the first female nominee in 2016.

“And we’re poised to give a big boost to the first openly gay Democratic candidate,” added David Yepsen, longtime expert on Iowa’s caucuses, referring to Buttigieg.

Complaints nearly always comes from two sources: lagging candidates and other states that are jealous.

“Castro really doesn’t have very much going in either state so he’s got nothing to lose,” said Yepsen, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, now host of a public affairs show on Iowa Public Television.

In any case, Donald Trump won in 2016 thanks to narrow wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“Democrats have to learn how to campaign in those places. Like it or not the Electoral College has a rural skew to it,” Yepsen said.


Iowa’s clout was cemented the first year it went early, in 1972.

Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the Democrats’ last nominee for vice president, was the clear front-runner. But his 36-23 win over South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, was viewed as underwhelming. Undecided also got 36%. Muskie’s 46-37 win in New Hampshire cemented the narrative that he’d fallen short.

McGovern went on to snag the nomination, and to lose in a landslide to President Richard Nixon.

Four years later, an obscure peanut farmer and Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, camped out in Iowa and walked away with an upset victory. Obama took much the same path in 2008.

No wonder California Sen. Kamala Harris spent Thanksgiving with her family in Iowa, and Joe Biden recently embarked on an eight-day bus tour there. (Harris suspended her campaign Tuesday.)

“It would be easy to say that Castro is just bitter because of his low polling in the state. But his low polling numbers mean he can speak the truth with nothing to lose,” a Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist wrote, calling the current system “unconscionable and undemocratic. … We cannot sit here in our seats of corn, soy and power and preach racial justice and equality and then, by virtue of being a predominantly white state, exclude people of color from the caucuses.”

He’s taking more heat in Iowa than back slaps, though.

“This has been more taboo for me to say this, for me to tell people in Iowa and in New Hampshire, hey, hey, hey, maybe we should let other states have their turn, than arguing for Medicare for all or we need a revamp of our tax code,” Castro said in Atlanta.

What system might he prefer?

Start in a state with a “good mix of rural and urban” that reflects the party’s diversity, he said, and one that promotes voter participation rather than puts up roadblocks. Democrats, he said, must “end their own hypocrisy of embracing a nominating process that begins with two states that minimize the voices of people of color.”


Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa has echoed the complaint about granting so much influence to such homogeneous states.

Imagine the uproar, he said on a recent radio interview, if the Rio Grande Valley, where 9 in 10 residents are Latino, hosted the first contest, with candidates spending months going from one pachanga to the next.

“Nobody would think that that would be a representative primary that you would start your election season with,” Hinojosa said. “Tradition doesn’t work anymore.”

The problem is, what’s the alternative?

Illinois’ ethnic mix is nearly identical to the national averages for whites, Hispanics and blacks. It also has a mix of rural, suburban and urban. Louisiana has fewer Hispanics but it’s close, otherwise.

Both states are well above average on the number of governors who end up in prison, though. During last spring’s elections in Chicago, four of 50 aldermen were out on bond.

“These are states with pretty good histories of political corruption,” Yepsen said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect place to start it.”


DNC chairman Tom Perez called it premature to discuss the 2024 nominating calendar.

“After every cycle you evaluate, and that’s for another time,” he said in Atlanta, as the party’s top 10 candidates gathered for the fifth primary debate. “We want as many people as possible to participate. And I think our reforms are enabling that.”

Among the tweaks since 2016: A half-dozen states shifted from caucuses to primaries, which are easier to participate in.

That doesn’t mollify critics of the Iowa-New Hampshire nexus.

“I operate in a system that was not designed for me or for by people who look like me,” said Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party. She conceded that finding consensus for a better system isn’t easy. “It’s more of a long term vision of how do we make sure that our party is reflective of the people that we represent.”

Resistance is fierce and it’s easy to see why.

At the parties’ quadrennial conventions, the nominees tend to quash efforts to rewrite rules of a game they just won.

The early states support a cottage industry of political consultants.

And consider Iowa’s remarkably high ratio of ambassadors to farmers: Eight in the last 30 years, with plum assignments such as Malta, Barbados and Latvia, and credentials such as a stint chairing the state GOP. The current ambassador to China is a former governor, Terry Branstad.

Compared to states with similar populations — Arkansas, Nevada and Utah — that’s a phenomenal placement record.

A Dallas Morning News review of Senate records shows that, not counting career Foreign Service officers, three Arkansans snagged ambassadorships in the last 30 years (European Union, Tanzania, Bulgaria).

Same for Nevada (Iceland, Barbados, Saudi Arabia) and Utah, though former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. practically qualifies as a professional diplomat, with stints overseeing the embassies in Moscow, Beijing and Singapore.

A half-dozen ambassadors have come from New Hampshire, where the well-connected have landed postings to Denmark, Belize, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, and Saudi Arabia.

The chairmen of Iowa’s Democratic and Republican parties, Troy Price and Jeff Kaufmann, co-authored an op-ed defending Iowa’s prime slot on the calendar, arguing that its gauntlet of face to face interactions and grassroots organizing can’t be bought with “flashy TV ads.”

“Those who put in the work of true retail politics — answering tough questions from educated voters, showing up at local events and making themselves available to average Americans — can and will do well,” they wrote. “This means anyone can come to Iowa, even with a small budget, and have a shot at being the president.”


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