Who are the real deciders?

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Stop Whining About New Hampshire and Iowa

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Every four years we hear it: the many, many complaints that Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the nation yet they get to go first in presidential voting. Black, Hispanic and Asian voters are scarce. There are no major cities. 

But if you accept that the parties choose nominees, it doesn't matter which states vote first. And Iowa and New Hampshire are really national, not local, battles. 

It isn't as if a representative sample of all Democratic or Republican voters chooses the parties' nominees anywhere. Those with clout are the most active members, at the state and national levels -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, formal party officials and staff, party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press.

Volunteers who travel to Iowa or New Hampshire to participate have the time to do so and, unless campaigns subsidize it, the money to afford it. Campaign staff and political consultants have complex incentives they do not share with ordinary voters, and the donors have their own motives.

All of them are far more involved in politics than ordinary voters are. Iowa was and New Hampshire is chock-full of party actors from all over the country. 

Some states have to go before others, and there are advantages for the parties in stability. If primaries and caucuses are mainly used as sources of information about the candidates, then it's important for that information to be easy to understand. Party actors with experience (and even media veterans) know how to read what is going on in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Switching to two other states would require learning about different idiosyncrasies. Rotating which states go first, as some have suggested, would be even worse because no one would ever know how to interpret events.

Specific parts of the process can be fixed or improved. Iowa's caucuses are run in a shockingly amateurish way, as Ed Kilgore has detailed. The state of Iowa should take over what have traditionally been party-run contests. 

A state-run system would make it easier to address another complaint about the caucuses: that they unfairly limit participation to those who can show up in person. There's no reason the caucuses couldn't accommodate absentee voting, and the state is in a better position to administer it. 

In the end, the real reason why Iowa and New Hampshire should continue to go first is that they've gone first for decades. And instead of arguing whether voters in those two states are representative, the better question is whether the Democrats and the Republicans nationally are sufficiently open to new voices and new interests. That's a discussion worth having. 

  1. It's a good thing that parties choose. The classic argument is found in Nelson W. Polsby's "Consequences of Party Reform.The short version: The alternative to parties isn't voters; it's either the media or a more or less random process, neither of which would benefit functional government. 


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net