Robert Alexander and David B. Cohen
The time has come to end the prized status for Iowa and New Hampshire as the first contests to kick off the presidential race. These states have held this status for nearly 50 years and have left a trail of winnowed candidates in their wake. Both states are less diverse than the rest of the country, and Iowa’s caucus process specifically is complicated, time consuming and unrepresentative of the American electorate.
NPR recently tried to classify how representative each state is by comparing their demographics to U.S. demographics overall. The categories included race, age, education, income and religiosity. While Iowa comes in at a respectable 16, New Hampshire ranks 49th.
The disparities on race are stark. Across the United States, 60% identify as “white alone,” 13% as African American and 18% as Latino. But in Iowa, the tally is 85% white alone, 4% African American and 6% Latino. New Hampshire’s population is even more disproportionate with 90% identifying as white alone, 2% as African American, and 4% as Latino.
One candidate of color left
These statistics are particularly relevant for Democrats given the significant role minorities play in their electoral coalition. Of the once notably diverse Democratic field, Andrew Yang is the only person of color still on the debate stage.
Over the years, some states have sought to challenge the privileged status of Iowa and New Hampshire. Two more diverse states, Nevada and South Carolina, have become more prominent in the nomination calendar with late February contests. Even so, the national parties have been protective of the launch roles played by Iowa and New Hampshire.
For instance, in the 2008 election, lobbying by states to replace Iowa as the first contest almost pushed the primary season back to December 2007. Frustrated with Iowa’s role as kingmaker, several states moved their primaries up so they could regain importance in the nomination process. As a result, both the Republican and Democratic national committees penalized Florida for holding its primaries early. These sanctions had a part in ending Rudy Giuliani’s bid for the Republican nomination and complicated the close race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Confusion in Iowa coupled with concerns whether the process yields the most effective general election candidate has fueled serious debate over changes to the process.
Alternatives include the prospect of a national primary or, short of that, regional primaries. A national primary would require a great deal of money and organization. A candidate like Mike Bloomberg would thrive under such a system.
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Many have made the case that Iowa and New Hampshire provide important opportunities for candidates to engage in retail politics. A national primary would make this much more difficult. Getting out on the campaign trail and talking to voters is an important aspect in any election.
Given the Electoral College system, candidates are ultimately driven to engage in this form of campaigning in a relatively small number of states. For this reason, we suggest moving to a regional primary system, beginning with the Great Lakes region.
Great Lakes competitiveness test
Why the Great Lakes? First, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, the region most reflects the nation when it comes to race, age, education, religion and religiosity. Illinois is actually the state that comes closest to looking like the entire United States.
All eight states in the region fare well on these measures: Pennsylvania comes in fourth, New York is sixth, Michigan is 15th, and Indiana is tied with Iowa at 16.
Interestingly, the battleground states of Ohio (20), Wisconsin (22) and Minnesota (25) look least like the rest of the country among the Great Lakes states. Conversely, while Illinois is the most representative state, it gets little attention in the nomination process or in presidential campaigns.
Taken together, these states compose one-fourth of all Electoral College votes (134), making them a logical grouping to test the competitiveness of candidates for the general election. Strength in this region would be an important signal to partisans looking for a nominee who could succeed in November.
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Other regions (East, South, West) would get to weigh in throughout the primary season and could potentially replace the Great Lakes depending on their “representativeness” quotient in future years.
Distrust, cynicism and polarization have gotten far worse in recent years. The privileged status of Iowa and New Hampshire has not helped. A modest proposal seeking to fairly represent the citizenry in the nomination process would be a significant step forward during these contentious times.
Robert Alexander, director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University, is author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” David B. Cohen, assistant director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, is co-author of “Buckeye Battleground: Ohio, Campaigns, and Elections in the Twenty-First Century.” Follow them on Twitter: @onuprof and @POTUSProf