It is a well-established practice that the political winds of the nation will sweep the plains of Iowa and the mountains of New Hampshire for the next month, before infiltrating every coffee shop, rotary club, and roadstop diner in South Carolina and Nevada. These are the four crucial early states that shape the presidential primary for all those that follow.
Each election cycle, the same Iowa straw polls are dissected, the same county fairs barnstormed, and the same political consultants enriched. It’s political theater, it’s time-honored tradition, and it’s endless entertainment for our chattering media class.
But why must our nominees be filtered through a handful of Iowa caucus-goers, followed by the select few voters of New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina? Why such an astronomically greater influence for voters in Des Moines and Portsmouth over those in Kansas City or Pittsburgh?
The importance each presidential contender places on those early states shows just how much more important those voters are than the rest of us.
Iowa has held our nation’s first caucuses since the Nixon presidency. New Hampshire has hosted the first primary since the 1920s — and even has a state law that bumps its date if another state tries to supplant it.
Tradition for tradition’s sake may provide unique charm to a family gathering, but it’s no way to conduct the race for our nation’s highest office. The early state entitlement enormously distorts the American political market, with these voters — and their unique outlooks, regional concerns, and biases — serving as kingmakers for our entire country.
Criticism of the undue influence of the early states has mostly pointed out that Iowa and New Hampshire are far whiter and more rural than the nation as a whole. This former point is significantly mitigated by the dual presences of Nevada and South Carolina, and their heavily Hispanic and black electorates, as the third and fourth primary states.
The larger problem is that the current system yields results that are more Iowan or New Hampshire-y than the country as a whole, due to the fact that a candidate must capture these voters alone to launch him or herself toward the presidency. Since 1976, six out of eight Democratic winners in Iowa became the eventual nominees. On the Republican side, the same proportion won New Hampshire.
We don’t know how the results would change with a new voting order. We do know that our national elections would be less arbitrary and would give voice to far more voters.
A logical primary process would be a randomized lottery to build the calendar, refreshed each presidential year and agreed upon by the two major parties — which alone could force the issue.
Maybe one cycle, Pennsylvania would finally benefit from the political competition of repeated visits by the presidential candidates. Then the map — and the voters — would refresh for the next round.
Such a change would likely provoke outrage and obstinacy, not least from the four early states that exercise such disproportionate influence. When Florida attempted to move ahead in 2012, it was punished for a “calendar violation” and stripped of half its voting delegates at the Republican convention.
But the mood among the American electorate is souring, and though the winners of the current system — from the early voters to the regional kingmakers and political consultants — would put up a fight to guard the process as it is, a change is needed.
Let’s use that great American zest for challenging the establishment, and shake up our stilted primary process in favor of new voices and new paths forward.
The establishment types who have enshrined the Iowa Stranglehold as a sacrosanct political practice are overdue for a challenge.
A new map that favors outsiders over insiders might be a tall order for today’s political system, where the only consensus between parties seems to be that the other side is terrible. But it could create a broad coalition that is more interested in fairness in the voting process than partisanship.
Will it be easy? No. But as 2016 shows us, voters occasionally do rise up in frustration to upend the status quo. Our stilted primary process is the next system in need of a shock.
Albert Eisenberg is a Philadelphia-based political consultant. He formerly served as the communications director for the Philadelphia Republican Party, and is a founder of Broad + Liberty. @albydelphia