Election 2020

There's Nothing Special About Iowa. Time To Let Other States Vote First.

Letting any single state go first is a mistake. But a national primary would be problematic too. Luckily, those aren't the only two options.

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Surely we can do better than this.

Last night's Iowa caucuses were a total disaster. Candidates spent millions of dollars, volunteers canvassed for months, and the media spilled untold amounts of ink, pixels, and TV time building up to the first nominating contest in the 2020 Democratic primary—but it was all for naught, as the Iowa Democratic Party totally fumbled the one event that puts the state on the political map. Someone will eventually be declared the winner, but it will hardly matter by then. Campaigns have moved on to New Hampshire, and the news cycle will quickly move on to tonight's State of the Union address and the next primary contests. Any bounce (or lack thereof) coming out of Iowa has been rendered meaningless.

Already, the mess is prompting calls for the Democratic Party to abandon the caucus format in Iowa, or to replace Iowa as the first state to vote, or both. (For more on all that, read Reason Features Editor Peter Suderman's obituary for the Iowa caucuses here.)

But that prompts an obvious follow-up question. If Iowa doesn't go first, which state (or states) should?

The two most common answers to this question—either that the first state to vote should be demographically representative of the country as a whole, or that we should move to a national primary that does not elevate any state above the rest—are both wrong. In each case, those changes would merely replace the problems caused by the Iowa caucuses with a different set of biases. Iowa (and New Hampshire) ought to be replaced as the "first-in-the-nation" caucuses and primaries, it's true, but both major parties should take this opportunity to implement a system that voters can trust to be fair to all candidates.

To understand why replacing Iowa with another state won't work, you have to understand the arguments against having Iowa vote first. These aren't new, even though they will get renewed attention after Monday's mess. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this: Iowa is too white and too rural to be an accurate microcosm of the country as a whole, and letting it go first every four years is unfair to candidates whose appeal might be greater in states that more accurately reflect America. The demographics are indeed striking. Iowa's population is 90 percent white, while the country as a whole is 61 percent white.

Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, has pinned at least some of the blame for his failed presidential campaign on the demographics of Iowa (and New Hampshire, the first primary state, which is also 90 percent white). "We can't as a Democratic Party, continually and justifiably complain about Republicans who suppress the vote of people of color, and then turn around and start our nominating contest in two states, that even though they take their role seriously, hardly have any people of color," Castro said in November.

But that identity-based critique must grapple with the fact that Barack Obama in 2008 scored a surprise upset over Hillary Clinton in Iowa—a victory that propelled Obama to the nomination and the presidency. Ironically, Clinton may have been better off in 2008 if the first state to vote was a more diverse, traditionally blue "state" where the Democratic Party establishment held more sway.

The problem, then, isn't that Iowa unfairly penalizes certain candidates. It's that giving any state the power to vote first creates a set of biases that affect the rest of the race.

That's not solved by letting another state jump to the front of the line. Sure, California has the most registered Democrats. Illinois is the state that, demographically, best matches the Democratic Party's national profile. Ohio is the swingiest swing state and a longtime political barometer. But having a big state—like California or Ohio—go first would grant a huge home field advantage to certain candidates. And would anyone in their right mind trust Chicago Democrats to handle the crucial first primary without controversy?

So why not try the opposite approach? If no single state should go first, make all of them vote at the same time. The idea to hold a "national primary" has been around for more than a century, and it probably never made more sense than it does now—since candidates can take advantage of technology to be in many places at once.

A national primary, however, comes with its own set of biases—ones that would boost wealthy candidates, like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. One of the major benefits of the current, state-by-state format is that it tests would-be presidential campaigns in a variety of ways—you have to win with small-scale retail politics in Iowa and New Hampshire, sell a national message on Super Tuesday, and identify where and when to invest resources without wasting them on states that can't be won. Campaigns that navigate that gauntlet successfully are, in theory, the best poised to win a general election. A national primary might elevate campaigns that can saturate the airwaves from coast-to-coast, but would make other campaign infrastructure less important.

There's probably no perfect way to structure a primary election, but the best ideas strike a balance between giving one or two states too much influence while still forcing winning candidates to navigate a geographically and demographically diverse process.

As recently as 2008, the Republican National Committee was considering exactly such a plan. Known as the "Delaware Plan," this reform was floated at the 2000 and 2008 national conventions. It would have sorted the states by population into four groups. The smallest states, by population, would share a single primary election day, followed by a second election for the next largest states, and so on.

Letting the least populated states vote first would preserve the traditional retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire, but would create a playing field that stretches from Maine to Alaska. Only candidates who survived those early tests would be able to compete for the big prizes in the final round of the process, when states like California and Texas would have their say. A variation on the Delaware Plan, known as the Ohio Plan, would also have small states voting in the first cluster, but would mix the subsequent clusters so the largest states by population didn't always have to wait to go last.

There are still some explicit biases in letting some states go first every time, and—as proposed to the RNC in 2008, at least—the Delaware Plan would preserve Iowa's and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status.

Still, that's a step in the right direction. Clustering states into a series of primaries so that, for example, 10 states vote at a time in five sets of elections with each election separated by a month, would prevent any one outcome (or any one major screw-up) from defining the first step in the nominating process. It would also create a more dynamic competition by forcing campaigns to make strategic choices—instead of spending months focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates would have to put their chips in a variety of places for the first round of voting.

The process could be made even more fair if the clusters of states are chosen by lottery. That was the basis of a bipartisan idea pitched by Debbie Dingell, the wife of late Democratic Michigan congressman John Dingell, and Saul Anuzis, then-chairman of the Michigan GOP.

Under the Anuzis-Dingell Plan, the 50 states would be sorted into six geographic regions. A lottery would be held to determine which states would vote on each of five primary election dates, each separated by a month. Each date would include 10 states—with at least one state, and no more than four states, from each of the six geographic regions.

It's complicated, sure, but no more complicated than the current process. It would provide a different, randomized map for each primary season—forcing campaigns to adapt their opening messages for an audience that's bigger than a mere 240,000 voters in Iowa cycle after cycle.

The only real drawback to a major reform like one of these is that it would have to be imposed from the top down. The DNC or RNC would have to do some serious arm-twisting to get states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to agree to a system in which they lose their primo spots—and one in which they might end up being among the final states to vote. It would require overriding the state parties to a degree that might make the national committees (and should make libertarian-minded people) a little uncomfortable.

And these reforms would do nothing to fix the real problem at the heart of America's presidential election system: that the winner is given too much power—an outcome that raises the stakes of any procedural tinkering far higher than they should be.

It's unlikely that there's any flawless presidential primary system. Still, last night's debacle in Iowa should stoke a real conversation about creating a more sensible and fair nominating process before 2024.

NEXT: Bernie-Backed Ballot Initiative Would Expand California's Brand New Rent Controls

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  1. I’m just going to say what everyone is thinking on this: The picture with this article looks like a man pulling out his sweatpants waistband and taking a rude selfie.

    1. Judging by how far he’s pulling his waistband, somebody is going to enjoy that picture.

    2. Oh, I get it. It’s rude because he is taking a selfie and you wanted a picture of his penis.

    3. And he’s wearing a button for a Peter.

  2. >>Candidates spent millions of dollars … and the media spilled untold amounts of ink, pixels, and TV time

    my heart bleeds for the power-mad and their sounding board

    1. Buckets o’ blood

  3. Anything that makes ethanol pledges less mandatory would be a good thing.

    1. Iowa: Ethanol OPEC on the Mississippi

      1. Maybe someone could sue the EPA for not cleaning up that ethanol spill on a navigable water of the US.

  4. Just eliminate primaries altogether, and vote for national offices all at once.
    With NO financial contributions from ANYONE.
    Each candidate gets a set amount of federal web space to put his message ‘out there’ to the people, and the people are freed from campaign ads. Win-win.

    1. So, the unions get to pick the winners.

    2. What happens when people unaffiliated with a candidate want to show ads about the candidate?

      1. Maybe we could have cars check voting too.

    3. I don’t see a whole lot of winning in your proposal. The federal government running campaign websites. Yeah nothing could go wrong with that. Multiple (20+ if based upon the Democrats who announced) candidates. That won’t result in an even more fractured electorate where a contender from say a certain West coast state with a big following in their home state and a bit of national name recognition could capture a small plurality and win. No nothing good about your proposal.

      1. Not to mention, you know, the whole idea of freedom of speech.

        1. It was so obvious I didn’t think it needed to be mentioned. But that is the biggest threat yes.

  5. I think the whole Iowa and New Hampshire thing are stupid too. But, I can’t remember the last time the winner in Iowa won the nomination. So it is not like they are determining much. Also, someone has to go first. I don’t think a single national primary is the answer. The point of all this is to see which one of these clowns can actually run a campaign over a protracted period of time. And having one national primary doesn’t do that.

    Instead of a national primary, they should just determine the primary order by lottery every four years. That way every state has an equal chance to be first and important for whatever that is worth.

    1. Look, the Democrats pretend to be folksy and care about people in flyover country for a couple of weeks before going back to DC or Brooklyn and insulting them again.

      1. Seeing elites pretend to enjoy state fair food is always amusing.

        1. As Iowahaw said, “Real people food, like deep fried beef sundae on a stick”

        2. Boomer Elite cringe: “JUST CHILLING IN CEDAR RAPIDS!!”

    2. The Iowa winner has been D nominee 4 cycles in a row.
      And I’d be more open to the bitching about Iowa being first if the water carriers around here had written those articles prior to last night.
      Now it’s just an attempt to deflect from the real issue: establishment leftist corruption and incompetence

      1. I didn’t know that. I guess I was thinking of the Republicans. And yeah, their sudden concern over this is comical.

        1. Using a quick search, Suderman wrote almost the same article in 2016 criticizing the Iowa caucus as he did earlier today. In 2012 they had something about ending the Iowa straw poll. Seems like every 4 years for some reason they actually turn their gaze towards Iowa.

        2. Yeah, this stuff has been written before. But it’s clearly just sour grapes this time. Iowa Democrats were not responsible for creating the app that fucked up the whole caucus; they’ve managed to pull it off without Silicrap Valley bullshit for decades and decades prior to this.

    3. The Iowa Republican primary went off without a hitch. I mean, they are from Iowa as well, just not Democrats.

      1. +100000

    4. I can’t remember the last time the winner in Iowa won the nomination. So it is not like they are determining much.

      You’re missing the point of what IA/NH do. They ELIMINATE candidates. They don’t pick candidates. Weeding the field down is what makes it possible for the states that come later to pick candidates.

      1. That is true. That is why I said the point of this is to find out who can run a campaign. And you can’t do that with one national primary.

    5. Uhm pretty sure it was the winner of the 2008 Presidential election. C’mon John you are better then that. The story even mentions it.

      1. I was thinking of the Republicans. My mistake.

        1. Yeah, when it is non-incumbent Republicans they tend to pick the most conservative, but least likely to win nominee.

  6. There is nothing special about any state, so might as well keep it in Iowa.

    1. “VISIT MISSISSIPPI
      and appreciate your own state all the more.”

    2. Right. Let the people of Iowa and NH have to deal with pandering jackasses interrupting their breakfasts every four years.

  7. Yes, all candidates should be picked from Manhattan, San Francisco or D.C. No need to spend time rubbing up against deplorable clingers. President’s cannot be decided at the ballot box — for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won.

    1. And, perchance they do get elected [and your chosen once does not], start the impeachment process immediately.

  8. It’s funny seeing Reason go all in on the D talking point in the aftermath of this Iowa disaster.
    The frustrated, impotent butthurt of Leftists in the face of this fiasco they can only blame on themselves is just so enjoyable to watch.
    Boehm, Suderman, our various leftist commenters… good show! Give us more!
    No, you’re not going to be able to pin this all on “Iowa” – it is too perfect an embodiment of what you are.
    Bask in your incompetence

    1. Idiots Out Walking Around.

      1. Again, the Iowa Republicans were able to hold their caucuses without any problems. The idiots seem to be from another party.

        1. The Republican selection was between Trump and two no names. What was The turnout? 10?

  9. Instead of state primaries that all happen at the same time, just get rid of state primaries and have the states send delegates to the national convention. I mean, duh.

    The individual states can pick their delegates however they want. Including a primary process. But a primary process at the state level, without federal government or national party interference.

    Third parties already do this.

    1. This was the way it worked for most of our history, even for larger parties.

  10. Iowa will always go first as long as we’re requiring ethanol in gasoline. That’s because going first makes Iowa important to candidates, which forces them to support ethanol policies.

    If Iowa becomes just another state primary, they won’t have that same clout to keep ethanol around to destory our lawn equipment engines.

    1. To be fair, any single state that was first would have some pet political issue and that would garner similar attention.

      These Primaries are designed to whittle down multiple candidates to a single nominee to face the other party’s nominee.

    2. Like T. Boone Pickett pointed out, there are 27 states that corn is a major market crop. Even without Iowa, ethanol industry has plenty of support in other states.
      This article shows corn production by state. Iowa is number one but you pretty much have to eliminate the whole Midwest and Texas to have any impact on the ethanol industry.

  11. Start it in whatever state you want, since it’s all bullshit anyway. What, you think it wouldn’t have been a clusterfuck if they had started in some other state? The core problem–the DNC’s preferred candidate, Joe “I had on onion on my belt” Biden getting his old ass handed to him–will happen regardless.

  12. Here’s a good one:

    Maggie Haberman

    @maggieNYT
    One thing to consider amid the caucuses snafu – the president has thrown accelerant on distrust of institutions, and this is another one. He has highlighted the Dem party ills around this caucus in tweets. It is in contrast to Obama silence on the Romney/Santo mess in 2012.

    Basically, “Trump dunking on Democratic incompetence in Iowa is unfair and hurts us all.” Is there anything Trump can’t be blamed for?

    1. “the president has thrown accelerant on distrust of institutions,”

      I’d say those institutions consistently proving they’re untrustworthy is the real problem

    2. Trump might be the most powerful man in history. Is there anything he can’t do?

  13. I’m going out on a limb by saying this would have happened to which ever state went first. I don’t think this is a product of Iowa, but a product of the DNC.

    1. It seems like a product of both the caucus format and poor planning (and maybe the particular app they are using). The DNC seems perfectly capable of running primaries in other states.

      1. “”It seems like a product of both the caucus format and poor planning “”

        What entity manages that?

    2. No this is definitely a consequence of Iowa having caucuses. Primaries are just part of the usual ‘reporting results’ conformity of all elections. There are processes in place that are repeated and repeated and repeated every election. Caucuses are tens of thousands of precincts – each of them doing things kind of their own way.

      For whatever reason (probably involving bribery of the head of the state party), a top-down national ‘tech’ company – supported by big donors, party bosses, and a Web2.0 ‘proprietary platform aggregating eyeballs’ mindset managed to convince both Iowa and Nevada that ‘caucuses’ required some conformist ‘app’ to report the results to a national media. And then – surprise surprise – that app company didn’t apparently spend a cent even thinking about orienting/training thousands of precinct captains as to how to use it.

      The poobahs didn’t give a shit that it fails. They’ve been wanting to get rid of caucuses for 100 years – ever since caucuses replaced ‘smoke-filled rooms’. Shame on Iowa and Nevada for thinking that anyone else gave a damn about the caucus system. Dumb dumb dumb.

      1. Those smoke-filled rooms are what brought Bernie to a primary win in Washington in 2016.

        You’re damned right Hillary wanted to get rid of the caucuses.

        1. Sorry, not primary win, but caucus win. And also she lost the caucus win in 2008 to Barack Obama.

          Which I totally forgot about.

          Sanders scored a landslide victory in the Washington caucus. His victory did not come as a huge surprise, since Seattle as a city had donated the most money per capita to the Bernie Sanders for President Campaign, and Washington state (particularly Seattle) has a history of electing more left-leaning politicians including other self-proclaimed socialists to office.[5] Sanders won all counties in the state on the day of the caucus.

          Washington was a bit of a lost cause for Clinton. She had lost the Washington caucus eight years earlier to Barack Obama, and her husband had lost the caucus in 1992 to both Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown.[6]

          1. With 62% reporting, Buttigieg is losing the vote total, but winning the caucus over Sanders. Hmmmm.

  14. Last night’s Iowa caucuses were a total disaster.

    Only for people directly involved in the campaigns and/or who pay too much attention to the political horse race. 95% of the country either is perfectly fine waiting an extra 12 hours to find out who won or doesn’t care regardless.

    Let’s have some perspective.

    1. I think your estimate of 95% is low.

    2. It hardly paints the DNC in a good light. Most people don’t care but they do care that this was a giant gaggle fuck (which any veteran will tell you is even worse then a cluster fuck).

      1. Just FYI: SNAFU<FUBAR<Cluster Fuck<Gaggle Fuck.

        1. Ever heard of FUBAHOR?

  15. Had the counting gone right and the establishment candidate had been selected last night, all of the articles today would be about how Iowa got it right and how important this caucus is.

    1. Yes. It is so transparent. Who do they think they are fooling?

    2. And another point. Had the establishment candidate won in some random way in Iowa, Reason certainly wouldn’t have written an article about how dumb that is either.

  16. So why not try the opposite approach? If no single state should go first, make all of them vote at the same time. The idea to hold a “national primary” has been around for more than a century, and it probably never made more sense than it does now—since candidates can take advantage of technology to be in many places at once big money will find it far easier to buy whatever candidate is willing to bend over the furthest to get a ton of advertising blipverts.

    FIFY

  17. Boehm – You are a stupid tool.

    There is a reason that Iowa and NH go first. It’s cuz they actually give a shit about that stuff. Those are exactly the folks you entrust to screening candidates out and whittling the field down. And Iowa/NH prove they give a shit not only during their primary stuff – but also when their role doesn’t matter one whit – via higher election turnout on general election day in Prez years and in off-years.

    There’s only a few other states whose voters themselves make a case – unsolicited – that maybe they should sometimes swap out and go first – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Vermont – maybe Oregon and Utah. All of them quite non-diverse. None of them with large pockets of poverty (the poor don’t really vote despite what commenters here seem to think). And it ain’t like those are that different from Iowa or New Hampshire.

    Other than that – all the ‘pressure’ for other states going first is nothing more mature than a baby crying that it wants attention. That doesn’t mean it deserves attention. Or would know what to do with it even if it got it.

    1. (the poor don’t really vote despite what commenters here seem to think).

      I’m trying to remember who the noted Marxist was that said (with disdain) that the working class had ultimately failed Marxism.

      And by ‘noted Marxist’, I mean the one other than Bernie Sanders.

      1. Open Marxist disdain for the working class started shortly after Marx.

        1. Yes, but this was something and someone fairly recent. Hearing it in the Age of Twitter is certainly more amusing than just reading about Trotsky and the firing squads from a history book.

  18. All this attention paid to the process of selecting the winner of the state primaries ignores the real problem with elections – the lack of consequences for the losers. If you’re going to stand up, put yourself out there and say you think you’re the best person for the job, well, when the voters disagree with your self-assessment there should be some sort of disincentive for that sort of behavior. Beatings might be too much, but at a minimum, being forced to keep your damn mouth shut for the next 4 years I don’t think is too much to ask. Winning an election is of course much worse behavior than losing one so beatings would be entirely acceptable in those cases.

  19. Fuck primaries. They serve no useful purpose. Go back to letting the parties choose their nominees at their conventions. Let them pick their delegates any way they wish.

    1. “Let them pick their delegates any way they wish.”

      Dueling?

      1. At least they wouldn’t nominate any pussies.

        1. And it might complicate the Dem’s position on gun control.

          1. I was thinking swords.

            1. I was thinking banjos

              1. Monster.

    2. Smoke-filled rooms at the convention. It was good enough for our grandparents!

  20. I guess Reason is over their recent concerns about the importance of “preserving our democratic institutions”.

  21. Political parties are private orgs. Let them figure it out for themselves. They can draw out of a hat or hold a talent show for all I care. Or they can chose to ignore their members and put an unwinnable shrew in as candidate by cheating.

    1. Exactly this.

    2. Pretty close to what the LP does, no?

      1. LP requirements are pretty clear: wear a tinfoil hat; be completely unknown; and have an embarrassing conviction on your record.

        1. That’s me! I get to be candidate this year!

  22. “Let?”
    “We?”
    Political parties are private entities!
    “We” taxpayers pay for primaries and such, make exclusionary “laws” that benefit these private entities (exclude 3rd parties?), and casually talk about “letting”, as if we all own shares or have a say in the workings of these secretive canals, corrupt organizations (private, not public, not government) that parade around like democratic institutions.
    The founding fathers warned us of these cabals.
    Treat them as such.

  23. Looks like the DNC has chosen Buttigieg as their anointed one.
    First he suppresses the Des Moines Register poll, then he gives a victory speech before results are in, and now 62% results have been released… showing him as winner.
    Bernie bros, you have your target

  24. Yet Iowa is special, for voting first. If you take that away the only thing they have is corn!

    1. And pork and meth.

  25. Voting at all is a waste of time and sends the wrong message, that voters support what the politicians are offering.

  26. Not enough brown people in Iowa and New Hampshire? I am shocked the Democrats have not gone with one of their favorite solutions: busing.

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  28. In a process that produces differentiated choices, each party would start selecting its candidates in the state where the party is strongest, would next move to the state where the party is next strongest, and so on.

    The selections would be one state at a time, so temporary momentum wouldn’t select candidates just based on name recognition, before voters have learned enough about all candidates.

    The selection would be done using caucuses, not primaries, so the voters who are best informed about each candidate would help inform everyone else.

    To get these things done by even one major party, we would have to build a major party. I have a plan: The Constitution Needs a Good Party: Good Government Comes from Good Boundaries. https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ACYBGNSKvZIyoXYqBYZT51HCLpBAKmn74Q%3A1579029885466&source=hp&ei=fRUeXvPQGay7tgXw062QBA&q=%22the+constitution+needs+a+good+party%3A+good+government+comes+from+good+boundaries%22&oq=%22the+constitution+needs+a+good+party%3A+good+government+comes+from+good+boundaries%22&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0i30.1979.1979..3241…1.0..0.103.103.0j1……0….2j1..gws-wiz._W89ia_JAmE&ved=0ahUKEwizg6Tb6IPnAhWsna0KHfBpC0IQ4dUDCAg&uact=5

  29. This article stops short of providing the ONLY resolve to election corruption and inefficiencies:

    1. Change the voting system from Plurality Voting to Score Voting.

    2. Hold one simultaneous primary for ALL 50 States.

    PROBLEM SOLVED! 😎

    http://www.NaturalRightsCoalition.com

  30. reason parroting dhimmicratic talking points fresh off the ol’ DNC fax machine — who woulda thunk it? FYI, it wasn’t “the Iowa caucuses” that went fubar — it was only the dhimmicrats. Can’t have anything that makes dhimmicrats look bad, so Iowa, you’re cancelled.

    This comment not approved by Silicon Valley brain slugs.

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  32. Time to fix the primary system? How about it is time to fix the Democratic Party, not that the Republicans are perfect. But, let us face it, the Democrats are a muti-dimensional divided mess.

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