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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Opinion

Era of Iowa, New Hampshire kicking off election season is ending

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John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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In American politics, tradition dictates that Iowa and New Hampshire kick off the election season as the two major parties elect their primary candidates. Recently, however, Democrats have suggested revising this tradition, arguing that Iowa and New Hampshire do not present an optimal, comprehensive sample of American voters, and suggesting states like South Carolina or Nevada should instead.

Straight Arrow News contributor John Fortier reviews the history of primary politics in Iowa and New Hampshire and then explores the debate around updating these traditions for Democrats, Republicans and Americans as a whole.

Since 1972, we have begun the Democratic and Republican presidential selection processes with the Iowa caucuses, followed roughly a week later by the New Hampshire primary. Their first-in-the-nation significance was a confluence of unintended events. Changes in party rules after the 1968 election made it the norm for almost all states to have a primary or caucus. Previously, there had been a mix of some states with primaries and others where party leaders selected the delegates for the convention. Iowa Democrats had a complicated caucus process with multiple rounds of elections so they decided to start their caucus early, and New Hampshire had been holding the first primary for over 50 years.

But in the mid-1970s, they passed a law requiring that New Hampshire go first of all the primaries. And early on, this new system showed one feature that continues today. These small states, early in the process, attract all of the presidential candidates. The candidates engage in much more door-to-door campaigning, and voters in these two states can expect to meet in person sometimes more than once with major party candidates.

Famously, a relatively unknown Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter spent months in Iowa, finished ahead of the other nationally known Democrats, and eventually ended up in the White House. Since then, our presidential primary system has begun with intense personal campaigning in these two states.

Defenders of the system have pointed to the personal grassroots campaigns the system encourages, while opponents have asked: Why did these two states get a special position of going first? And are these states representative of the nation?

With the Iowa-New Hampshire contest in the rearview mirror, we can raise the question: Is this the end of an era? Is the 50-year run of Iowa, New Hampshire leading off our presidential primary system coming to an end?

 

Since 1972, we have begun the Democratic and Republican presidential selection processes with the Iowa caucuses, followed roughly a week later by the New Hampshire primary. Their first in the nation significance was a confluence of unintended events. Changes in party rules after the 1968 election made it the norm for almost all states to have a primary caucus. Previously, there had been a mix of some states with primaries and others where party leaders selected the delegates for the convention. Iowa Democrats had a complicated caucus process with multiple rounds of elections. So they decided to start their caucus early, and New Hampshire had been holding the first primary for over 50 years.

 

But in the mid-1970s, they passed a law requiring that New Hampshire go first of all the primaries. And early on, this new system showed one feature that continues today. These small states, early in the process, attract all of the presidential candidates. The candidates engage in much more door-to-door campaigning, and voters in these two states can expect to meet in person sometimes more than once with major party candidates. Famously, a relatively unknown Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter spent months in Iowa, finished ahead of the other nationally known Democrats, and eventually ended up in the White House. Since then, our presidential primary system has begun with intense personal campaigning in these two states.

 

Defenders of the system have pointed to the personal grassroots campaigns the system encourages, while opponents have asked why did these two states get a special position of going first? And are these states representative of the nation? Over the years, there have been attempts to reform the primary calendar, and individual states have sought to jump ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire, only to be foiled by these two states moving their contests even earlier. But after the 2020 election, the National Democratic Party made a major move to knock Iowa and New Hampshire out of their spots of first caucus and first primary. The new national Democratic plan would have Democrats begin in South Carolina, followed by Nevada, states that have been the third and fourth contests in recent years. Why do Democratic leaders want to change the calendar?

 

First, they argue that Iowa and New Hampshire are not as demographically diverse as their party and the nation. South Carolina, by contrast, has a substantial African American vote, and Nevada has a large Hispanic vote. Second, national Democrats have fallen out of love with the caucus process in Iowa. In general, caucuses are run by the party rather than the state. They are lower turnout than primaries, in part because they are held at one specific time with no early voting or mail voting options. The changes that national Democrats sought to implement are evident in 2024. But there is a complicated interaction between the wishes of national Democrats, state Democrats, and laws passed by the state legislature. This has led to oddities in early contests. This year in Iowa, Democrats did not have the presidential part of the caucus process on the first date. In New Hampshire, state law still requires that there be an early Democratic primary, but the national party made it so the primary would not count for producing delegates for the convention. And President Biden did not even submit his name for the ballot, leading some voters to organize writing votes for him in a contest that did not matter.

 

In South Carolina, Democrats and Republicans will have their primaries on different dates, Democrats at the start of February and Republicans at the end of the month, and in Nevada, state law calls for a primary for Democrats and Republicans. But Republicans chose to run a caucus as their official contest, leading to the strange result of a primary that does not count for delegates where Nikki Haley is running and a caucus that does count for delegates where Donald Trump is running.

 

All of this confusion has not really come to the fore, as there was a Democratic incumbent president running with only minor opposition. But in 2028, we will see how these changes really play out. Almost certainly, Democrats will not have a first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, but Republicans will likely keep their first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus. As for New Hampshire, the national Democrats’ wish to move New Hampshire out of the first primary status may clash with current state law. In all likelihood, the 50-year tradition of beginning with Iowa and New Hampshire has ended, at least on the Democratic side, and we are likely to see different Republican and Democratic calendars and no more Democratic candidates trumping to the Iowa State Fair, vacationing in New Hampshire, or more importantly, engaging with these small states voters one on one, the end of an era.

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