Iowa and New Hampshire Won’t Be Knocked Out of First

Kamala Harris in Iowa in 2019. Is she excited about going back? Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

A couple of months ago, on the anniversary of the star-crossed 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, I suggested that the many traumas of the pandemic year had made the Iowa caucus-results meltdown seem a lot less important, and the prospects of a major shakeup in the presidential nominating process a lot less likely.

Now as the political machinery for the next presidential cycle slowly gets underway, the odds that Iowa and New Hampshire will maintain their traditional positions as the first caucus and first primary states, in tandem with the other two “protected “early” states, Nevada and South Carolina, keep going up. As Geoffrey Skelley explains at FiveThirtyEight, and as Iowa-haters never seem to quite comprehend, you cannot just “reform” the nominating system by some sort of national party fiat:

Ultimately, state parties and/or governments decide the timing of their caucuses or primaries. And while the national party can encourage these decision-makers to schedule their contests on certain dates, it cannot unilaterally impose its will on the primary calendar. Moreover, because Republicans seem intent on keeping the two states in prime position for the 2024 campaign, it might be even more difficult for Democrats to make any changes.

Switching from a caucus to a primary, as the whole world demanded of Iowa Democrats after the 2020 debacle, is particularly tricky. Caucuses are party-controlled and party-funded events. Primaries are official state-operated-and-funded elections (yes, there is such a thing as a party “primary,” but they are not terribly desirable; the costs associated usually mean very limited polling places). Thus, primaries require state legislative authorization and appropriations, and almost invariably, coordinated timing so that there is only one primary day. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, legislatures are currently controlled by Republicans. So it doesn’t much matter if national Democrats or national political media want to go to a more “rational” system of rotating regional primaries or a calendar where the most representative states go first. These outsiders have influence, but don’t really call the shots.

In addition, the “early states” continue to get their way because they care about it more than others, and because they tend to stick together. Iowa Democrats and Republicans are already retaking blood oaths to defend their state’s leading status in the nominating process. New Hampshire has a state law instructing its secretary of State to protect its “First Primary,” and authorizing her or him to move its date forward to head off any and all competitors, even if that mean moving into the previous calendar year.

The determination of Iowa and New Hampshire to maintain their position despite constant complaints (particularly among the vasty more diverse Democrats) that they are far whiter and less urban than the country is evidenced by their strategy of bringing Nevada (with its sizable Latino population) and South Carolina (with its large Black population) into the charmed circle of calendar-protected “early states.” That not only makes the system more defensible, but also increases the “early state” lobbying clout when it comes to national party rules seeking to shape the nominating contest calendar.

As a result, the biggest threat to the Iowa/New Hampshire duopoly would come from a Nevada/South Carolina coup. There were signs early this year that Nevada Democrats and Republicans might come together on a power move to switch their caucuses to primaries and demand first-in-the-nation position. But the recent shake-up in the leadership of the Nevada Democratic Party has made the internal and external coordination necessary to pull that off problematic.

There’s been some talk that the Democratic National Committee itself (which has certain carrots and sticks it can use to influence the primary/caucus calendar even if it lacks fiat power) might push Iowa and New Hampshire out of the top two spots, particularly now that former South Carolina party chairman Jaime Harrison is in charge. But Harrison may have bigger fish to fry with Democrats focused on the 2022 midterms, and the 2020 experience showed that his state could have a decisive influence on the nomination despite going fourth.

But the one big foot that could decisively come down on the process is Joe Biden’s. If he really does intend to run for reelection, he might not want to rock boats by changing the nominating process or calendar. But if he did, his fifth place finish in Iowa in 2008 and fourth place finish in 2020 might influence him (he didn’t make it to New Hampshire in 2008, and finished fifth there in 2020).

A more complicated scenario is one in which Biden quietly prepares to retire. His heir-apparent, Kamala Harris, spent a lot of time in Iowa in 2019 (at one point, she told Senate colleagues “I’m fucking moving to Iowa!”), but was running at 3 percent in the polls there when she folded her campaign in December. It’s the sort of place where an “Establishment” candidate might get tripped up, if she runs and is challenged by some sort of insurgent. Given the political capital it would take to push for a change in the calendar, and the risk of voter retaliation if it fails, any candidate who doesn’t enter the process with the nomination nailed down would probably take a pass on challenging early states.

If there is uncertainty about how badly Democrats want to change the calendar, the notable thing about Republicans is that they seem largely disinterested (which, as noted above, is a problem for Democrats in any state where their cooperation is needed to “reform” the system). For obvious reasons, they are less agitated than Democrats about the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire. As for the impact on 2024, potential GOP candidates are already making their way to Iowa. And of course, the field may be frozen in place until the unquestioned leader of the party, Donald Trump, makes his own intentions known.

You might think Trump would be resentful about his upset loss in Iowa to Ted Cruz in 2016. But his boffo general-election performances in the Hawkeye State probably wiped out any such feelings, and the 45th president is not the sort of pol who’s likely to get embroiled in the process details of the nominating calendar. If he doesn’t run, the likelihood that 2024 could be a wide-open contest among Republicans makes the survival of the status quo even more likely. Ultimately the power of the “early states” depends on their ability to threaten presidential candidates who disrespect them. Few are so powerful or bold to do so. The best bet is that presidential candidates and the political news media will have to bundle up once again for many cold nights in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Iowa and New Hampshire Won’t Be Knocked Out of First