Democrats’ plan to give Iowa the boot from top primary spot is great news

In what has become somewhat of a tradition, one of the political parties is taking early aim at changing the presidential selection process. 

This year, it’s the Democrats with a noteworthy shakeup to the 2024 primary and caucus calendar. On Thursday, NBC News reported that the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee was planning to formally propose bumping Iowa from its first-in-the-nation spot and moving up Michigan, restructuring the longtime lineup of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

What is striking, and may finally lead to their ouster, is how often the victors in these two states — especially on the Democratic side — have flopped later on in the selection process.

It seemed that New Hampshire would then take the top spot, but then President Joe Biden later in the day pushed for South Carolina to be No. 1. It’s an unsurprising request, considering the state gave him a lifeline for his 2020 presidential run. A DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting, which begins Friday, is expected to be the first time the public officially hears the rescheduling plan, but a vote on the reshuffling wouldn’t be until early next year by the full DNC.

A change to which states get first dibs in the primary is long overdue, and there are several reasons why Iowa and New Hampshire may deserve to be on the chopping block.

The first glaring problem is that Iowa and New Hampshire are among the least diverse states in the country, and in a time when most Americans live in either an urban or suburban setting, they are among the most rural.

However, the reality is that these two factors in and of themselves may not be enough of a reason to attack the states’ leadership position. What is striking, and may finally lead to their ouster, is how often the victors in these two states — especially on the Democratic side — have flopped later on in the selection process. 

Of course, no one likes to be booted from the top spot, but though these two states seem to base their roles on history and lore, the actual record shows a very different picture. Florida was the first state to adopt a primary for presidential nominees, in 1904, and neither Iowa nor New Hampshire was a part of the first epic presidential primary battle in 1912, when William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt fought for the Republican presidential nomination. 

New Hampshire’s primary first gained widespread exposure in 1952 and really became noteworthy in 1968 when Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly beat President Lyndon B. Johnson’s slate, which helped push Johnson out of a re-election run. These elections operated under the old political convention system, which gave nearly all of the power of presidential nomination to state party leaders, who hand-selected delegates rather than the voters. 

After changes to the system gave the voters more say, Iowa’s place in the process took off following Jimmy Carter’s surprising success in the 1976 caucus, where he came in a close second to uncommitted delegates. Carter also won New Hampshire, which helped solidify its position in the process.

But since then, among non-incumbent Democrats, only Barack Obama has won both Iowa and the presidency, and since Carter, not a single non-incumbent Democrat who has triumphed in New Hampshire went on to victory in November. Both Bill Clinton and Obama lost in the Granite State. 

Perhaps 2020 was when these two states witnessed their ultimate failure. Biden finished a distant fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire and was seen as dead in the water. Biden’s success in the presidential races came in spite of these two states, not because of them.

Perhaps what makes Iowa even more problematic for Democrats is that it has moved out of the political center.

The situation is reversed for non-incumbent Republicans, as Iowa has not been a boon. Only George W. Bush won the caucus and the presidency. New Hampshire has been a bit more of a benefit, with nearly all of their presidents since 1980 (with the exception of George W. Bush) winning the state.

Poor performance of the candidates isn’t the only problem. Iowa uses the confusing, and at times disastrous, caucus system, which leads to results that are hard to discern. In 1988’s Democratic caucus, it is still arguably unknown who really won: the declared winner, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, or Illinois Sen. Paul Simon. There was no such lack of clarity in 2012 for Republicans when Mitt Romney came out with the win and the momentum, only to discover weeks later that former Sen. Rick Santorum actually won. 

Once again, 2020 saw the caucus outdo itself, with results not reported for days. Eventually, it took the better part of the month for a result to be announced, and then there was some debate over who won. Rather than give any candidate momentum, the coverage was about the botched counting.

Perhaps what makes Iowa even more problematic for Democrats is that it has moved out of the political center. Where it was once a blue-tinged swing state, it has become increasingly Republican and may be out of reach of the Democrats. Obama won the state twice, but it voted for Donald Trump by large margins, and both of the senators and the governor are Republicans. This has made it more likely for the Democrats to make a change against the Hawkeye State. On the other hand, New Hampshire has been trending Democratic, which may be its saving grace this go-around. 

As a result of both states’ histories, ahead of the DNC rules and bylaws meeting, some of the names being floated to replace or run concurrent with Iowa and New Hampshire are touting their more diverse populace. Prominent among these is Nevada, which has the benefit of being a swing state that Biden barely captured against Trump. The state has been the center of two midterm Senate battles that have gone the Democrats’ way, and it’s rapidly expanding, as opposed to shrinking, a la Iowa, which has lost Electoral College votes since 1970. 

Reforming the presidential nomination process has been on the minds of both parties. The big change that they have been unable to make was dislodging the first two states from their lead-off roles. But now, after generations at the mercy of New Hampshire and Iowa, and with their poor track records, it may be that at least one party is gaining the will to make an important change to the status quo.

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