How we can fix the broken primary process

By BRIAN KLAAS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 2, 2019

In nine months, fewer than 200,000 Iowans will cram into a series of high school gymnasiums and church basements. They won’t look much like a mirror of America. A disproportionate number of them will be rural farmers. And yet, it’s a pretty good bet that a tiny, unrepresentative sliver of Iowans will decide the next Democratic nominee to be the president of the United States.

The presidential nominations process is broken. Most democracies have a leadership nomination process that lasts weeks or months; in the United States, it’s measured in years. Most democracies give equal weight to voters regardless of where they live; in the United States, the decision is almost always made in two small states that represent just over 1% of the total population. And in most democracies, you don’t have to be a millionaire or raise tens of millions to carry your party’s banner into an election; in the United States, you’re toast if you’re not raking in millions per week.

But perhaps the most bizarre aspect — and the easiest to reform — is the presidential primary calendar. That the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are always first in the nation isn’t just unfair; it’s also undemocratic. And while it’s amusing to see the weird spectacle of one candidate and 10 locals crowded into a living room in Dubuque, Iowa, it’s time for the parties to flex their muscle and allow other states to have their turn at the front of the line.

Since 1972, only one major-party presidential candidate has won his party’s nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire (Bill Clinton in 1992). There have been 18 competitive races to be the Republican or Democratic nominee for president in that period. In 95% of those races, the path to victory went through either Iowa or New Hampshire. All four of the most recent Democratic nominees won Iowa.

That’s a problem — because you’d be hard-pressed to pick two states that are less representative of the U.S. population. The United States is 61% white, compared with 86% of Iowa and 91% of New Hampshire. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans is Hispanic or Latino. In Iowa, it’s 1 in 16, and in New Hampshire, 1 in 27. And finally, nearly 1 in 7 Americans is black. In Iowa, it’s 1 in 26, and in New Hampshire, it’s 1 in 62.

There’s a massive rural bias, too. Des Moines and Manchester are the country’s 100th and 263rd largest metropolitan areas, respectively. And that matters because there is evidence that federal policy gets swayed by early caucus and primary states, as candidates pander to win. It’s not just Iowa’s ethanol, either; it appears that early voting states — states that already have more pigs than most — get more Washignton pork.

Furthermore, the Iowans who participate in the caucuses aren’t even representative of Iowa. Seven percent of eligible Iowans participated in the highly competitive 2016 Democratic caucus. And there are skews within that group, too. A single parent juggling two jobs has a harder time setting aside a few hours walking around a gymnasium simply to have his or her voice heard.

One study found that each Iowa caucusgoer and each New Hampshire primary voter has between four and five times the impact on the nominee from those who vote on Super Tuesday, several weeks later.

Regional bias is a problem, too. What about the South and the West?

There is, however, one significant virtue of the current system. Rather than having a single national primary — which would ensure that only the established front-runners and prolific fundraisers could win — the early small-state model is a good one. It allows lesser-known candidates (such as Barack Obama in 2008) to emerge. But it’s simply indefensible for it to always be the same two unrepresentative states.

Twenty-seven states have a population below 5 million. They should be put into a lottery system, in which four states out of those 27 would be randomly selected to go first — one from the West, one from the South, one from the Northeast and one from the Midwest. The South and Northeast would be paired together for the first day of voting; the Midwest and West for the second. In each subsequent election, the regional order would flip. And if a state won the lottery in 2020, it wouldn’t be eligible to win it in 2024.

Then, the remaining 46 states should be divided into four groups of similar population size and with regional proportionality. Four Super Tuesdays would follow, every two weeks, representing such large delegate counts that even the last one could prove decisive. Whichever bloc of states went first in 2020 would go last in 2024, creating a rotation based on fairness rather than a convoluted and arbitrary calendar.

There are other proposals for reforming the primary system. Whichever plan is adopted, it must be based on fairness, regional representation and demographic balance, while ensuring that the nomination process is competitive.

If we started from scratch, nobody would tolerate the idea that two states would always get such outsize influence. But over time, tradition has supplanted rationality, and our broken system has become entrenched. Fixing it is long overdue.

Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy.

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