Like death and taxes, it’s long been a fact of life that Iowa and New Hampshire kick off both the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.
However, the nightmarish hellscape that was the Iowa caucuses in the 2020 Democratic primary — the Iowa Democratic Party released barely any results the night of the caucuses because of technical problems — heightened calls for ending Iowa’s reign as the first state to vote in the primary calendar.
But in some ways, the push to bump Iowa and New Hampshire from the start of the primary process has long been picking up steam among Democrats. Iowa and New Hampshire are two very white states — 85 to 90 percent of each state’s population is non-Hispanic white — and in 2020 neither state did much to influence the nomination race for a party that is now about 40 percent nonwhite. Now-President Biden won the Democratic primary despite finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in New Hampshire’s primary.
Yet the mounting opposition to Iowa and New Hampshire voting first might not be enough to actually depose them. Ultimately, state parties and/or governments decide the timing of their caucuses or primaries. And while the national party can encourage these decision-makers to schedule their contests on certain dates, it cannot unilaterally impose its will on the primary calendar. Moreover, because Republicans seem intent on keeping the two states in prime position for the 2024 campaign, it might be even more difficult for Democrats to make any changes.
It’s true, though, that Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the Democratic electorate. Back in 2019, we used data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study,1 a survey of more than 50,000 people conducted by YouGov in conjunction with Harvard University, to reorder Democrats’ primary calendar based on the similarity of each state’s Democratic electorate to the party’s nationwide voter base. We found that Iowa and New Hampshire ranked in the bottom half of states in terms of how representative they were of the Democratic Party’s voters, and thus would vote near the end of the primary season.2 (This analysis uses data from the 2016 presidential election, but considering how highly correlated the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests were, it’s hard to imagine the order would change that much if we had final 2020 data, which we don’t.)3
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Instead of the current order, a state like Illinois or New Jersey should go first by our calculations. That might be a hard sell, of course, considering a state like New Jersey has often voted at the end of the primary process, and underdog candidates would prefer not to run ads in the expensive media markets of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
As another option, Democrats have floated moving up Nevada, which ranked fifth in our similarity calculation and has been an early-voting state since 2008. Nevada Democrats, who have full control of state government, are even considering legislation to establish a state-run primary to try and jump ahead of New Hampshire, but it’s unclear whether such legislation, which has failed before in Nevada, will pass. (South Carolina is another leading alternative among Democrats, given it’s also an early-voting state and is one of the few states in the Democratic primary with a majority-Black primary electorate. It also proved vital to Biden’s nomination in 2020.) Some Democrats even like the idea of promoting Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state that ranked just behind Nevada in our analysis. However, in previous years Pennsylvania leaders have been reluctant to schedule an earlier date for the state’s consolidated primary, where it holds primaries for president and other offices on the same day.
And Pennsylvania’s logistical concerns underscore one of the fundamental challenges to supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire: Doing so will require cooperation among the national parties, state parties and — in the case of state-run primaries — state governments, which is no easy task because these actors often have conflicting goals.
Although the Democratic National Committee can try to encourage states to schedule their contests in certain calendar windows with various carrots and sticks — like handing out delegate bonuses or penalties — they can’t force states to cooperate. And Iowa and New Hampshire have no interest in giving up their valuable calendar real estate, which, beyond its outsized political influence, is also worth millions of dollars to each state’s local economy.
Take New Hampshire, where state law gives Secretary of State Bill Gardner unilateral power to move the primary date as necessary to protect the state’s distinction of hosting the cycle’s first presidential primary. This has arguably been Gardner’s raison d’être during his four-plus decades in office, as he’s gone pretty far to keep New Hampshire first. Ahead of the 2012 GOP presidential primary, for instance, multiple states moved their primary dates up, which prompted Gardner to threaten that he’d schedule New Hampshire’s contest in December 2011 if he had to. And in an age where there’s little bipartisanship on most issues, maintaining New Hampshire’s privileged place unites Democratic and Republican leaders in the Granite State, so if Nevada does switch to a primary and tries to schedule it before New Hampshire’s primary, Gardner will just pick an even earlier date.
Democratic efforts to shake up the primary calendar would probably be more feasible if Republicans were on board, but there’s little sign they are. Republican Party chairs from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are banding together to protect their “carve-out” spots at the front of the line, and potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders aren’t anticipating radical shifts, as they’re already visiting Iowa and New Hampshire.
One reason for the GOP’s apparent lack of interest in changing the schedule may be that it has fewer concerns than Democrats about these two states being representative: Using 2016 CCES data, we found Iowa ranked as the sixth-most representative state for Republicans, based on educational attainment and “born-again” religious identification — although New Hampshire also ranked in the bottom half of all states.
Democrats may still try to relegate Iowa’s caucuses after the messy 2020 event, and some Iowa Democrats have acknowledged they will have to fight to hold onto their spot. But because the GOP isn’t moving to supplant Iowa, attempts at the wholesale changes many Democrats want may be a bridge too far.
Now, moving Iowa’s caucuses wouldn’t be as involved as moving the primary in New Hampshire because they are a party-run event and don’t involve the state government. But even if the DNC heavily penalizes Iowa and New Hampshire for going first by reducing or even eliminating their delegates, it risks a situation where Republicans are still competing first in those states. This could prompt Democrats in those states to still hold their contests at the same time as Republicans, hoping the inevitably intense media coverage of the races preserves their influence over the overall nomination race.
At this early vantage point, we can’t say what the primary schedule will look like in 2024, or if Democrats will even have a competitive race. (Biden has said he plans to seek reelection, but he’ll be 81 years old in 2024.) But what we can say at this point is that making major alterations to the nomination calendar has never been easy — if it were, things would’ve changed already. And attempts to remove the two states that have long had a stranglehold on the top rung might prove to be especially messy.