Iowa Shouldn’t Vote First

Caucus-goers in Iowa participated in the first nominating contest of the 2020 Democratic primary on Monday. A caucus is a party meeting where voters gather to discuss the candidates. Voters don’t fill out a traditional ballot; instead, voters with the same preferred candidate gather together in groups. A candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of the voters present or that candidate is considered nonviable and their supporters must choose other candidates. Iowa voted first after the Democrat Party reformed its primary process in 1972 because its complex caucus process required more time, and it has voted first in every presidential primary since. As a consequence of its first-in-the-nation status, Iowa voters have outsize say in who becomes the nominee: a 2007 study estimated that early-state voters have twenty times more influence on the selection of the nominee than voters in states that hold later primaries. It’s both unfair that voters from a state that is unrepresentative of the country as a whole hold so much power in deciding the nominee, and inefficient for primary candidates to spend so much of their time and resources on such a small state. The Democratic Party should rearrange its primary calendar so that diverse swing states vote early. 

The most important reason that Iowa shouldn’t vote first is that it’s not representative of the national Democratic Party. A state that is about 90 percent white shouldn’t wield so much power in selecting the nominee of such a diverse party  — it’s very likely that Iowa voters’ preferences differ from those of other Democratic voters, meaning that the candidate that Iowa puts on the trajectory to the nomination may not represent the average voter. The outsize influence of majority-white Iowa voters may explain why candidates of color have struggled to gain momentum in the 2020 primary. There is substantial evidence that candidates’ performance in Iowa is a determinant of their performance in later primaries. For instance, the winner of the Iowa Democratic Caucus has won the Democratic presidential nomination in seven of the last ten elections since 1972. Primary candidates that do poorly in Iowa often end their campaigns, so allowing Iowa to go first allows voters that are unrepresentative of the Democratic electorate to winnow the field of candidates. 

FiveThirtyEight recently ranked states on how similar their Democratic voters are to the national Democratic electorate on race, ethnicity, and education. Iowa ranked 42nd, so if we picked almost any other state to vote first, it would better represent the Democratic Party as a whole. According to the FiveThirtyEight analysis, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York most closely resemble a cross-section of the Democratic electorate and would be preferable alternatives to Iowa. If those states voted first, the nominee might better represent the diverse coalition of Democratic voters. 

Primary candidates spend months campaigning in Iowa so they can have a strong showing in the first state, which tends to convince voters that they are electable and improves their performance in the states that follow. Consequently, Iowans have far more opportunities to interact with candidates than voters in other states. The intense competition over Iowans’ votes may lead candidates to add issues to their platforms that Iowa voters care about or make promises that will benefit Iowa voters. If Iowa is always first, voters from other states don’t have the opportunity for candidates to focus on issues that are most important to them. Large, diverse states should rotate voting first so that as many voters as possible can benefit from the candidates’ extra attention to the early states. 

While Democratic presidential candidates have been campaigning almost exclusively in early primary states, the Trump campaign has been pouring money into states that will actually be decisive in the general election. Iowa, with its mere six electoral votes, won’t be much of a factor in the general election. Most of the Democratic candidates’ campaigns have virtually no presence in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. This is a serious mistake because the Democrats are allowing Trump to campaign virtually unopposed in swing states. When the Democratic nominee starts to campaign in swing states this summer, they’ll have to catch up on the months of campaigning that Trump has already done. If Democratic primary candidates spent more time campaigning in the states that will decide the general election, the Democratic nominee might be more likely to win those states in November because voters will be more familiar with the nominee, and the nominee will be more in touch with issues that swing-state voters care about.

Iowa voters will be very reluctant to give up voting first — they take a lot of pride in playing such a large role in the primary, and there’s even an Iowa state law that says that Iowa must vote at least eight days before any other state. Other states going first, however, would result in a stronger, more representative nominee. Rearranging the primary calendar so that swing states vote first would incentivize candidates to spend more time there during the primary and may marginally increase their chance of winning the general election. Allowing swing states to vote first would also ensure that a diverse group of voters is most influential in selecting the nominee. 

Laura Wilcox

Laura Wilcox '20 is from Alexandria, VA studying economics and math. She is passionate about central banks and monetary policy.

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