Sorry, N.H. Democrats, But It's Time You Lost Your First-Place Presidential Primary

Nov 18, 2015

New Hampshire Democrats are enjoying an energetic presidential primary campaign this year. But is it time for the national party to find a new first-in-the-nation state?
Credit Allegra Boverman / NHPR

I don’t expect this will get me invited to many Manchester dinner parties or Sioux City porkfests. But here goes:

It’s time for Democrats to ditch Iowa and New Hampshire’s one-two punch at the front of the party’s presidential nominating calendar.

  The reason for my suggestion is basic demographics. New Hampshire and Iowa have been growing apart from the rest of the Democratic primary for years. The two states’ overwhelmingly white, liberal primary electorates are not remotely representative of Democratic primary voters in the rest of the country, or of the general electorate. They look different, act differently, and care about different things.

Putting Iowa and New Hampshire first means only candidates who can appeal to the narrow slice represented by the two states have the opportunity to try their message elsewhere. This puts candidates who may appeal to voters in more diverse, later-voting states at a permanent disadvantage.

Gatekeepers -- and outliers  

In the 40 years they have led off the voting, Iowa and New Hampshire have together held great sway over both parties’ nominating process. With one exception, every eventual nominee from both parties has won Iowa, New Hampshire, or both.

Despite this record of success (and really, because of it), Democrats should pack up their tent and look elsewhere. The Democratic electorates in the two states are both the clear gatekeepers and also incontrovertible outliers.

Let’s look at the numbers: Iowa and New Hampshire are among the whitest states in the union. In New Hampshire in 2008, 95 percent of Democratic primary voters were white; in Iowa, 93 percent were white. Compare that to the U.S. as a whole, where 72 percent of the national electorate is white – and the majority of children now born in the country are not white.

Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire and Iowa are among the whitest and most liberal of those in any state -- making them highly unrepresentative of the Democratic Party electorate for the nation as a whole.

This lack of diversity in the twin lead-off states makes a bigger difference on the Democratic side than on the Republican side. That’s because Democratic primaries attract much more diverse electorates in other states, while GOP voters continue to be much whiter than each state’s total population.

In 2008, five Democratic primaries had “majority-minority” electorates, where non-white voters made up the largest slice of the vote. The GOP contests in those states were, on average, 92 percent white.

Iowa and New Hampshire fit in fine with other GOP primary electorates, but they stick out like a sore thumb on the Democratic side.

While the Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and Iowa mirrors that in other states, Democratic voters in those two states are real outliers compared to the rest of the nation.

The same goes for political ideology.

Iowa Republicans are among the most conservative, and New Hampshire the most moderate. Taken together, they adequately cover the right side of the political spectrum. 

Starting the presidential race with Iowa and New Hampshire is a throwback – or, more accurately, an anachronism.

  But on the Democratic side, Iowa and New Hampshire are actually too much alike. Exit polls show they both are among the most liberal Democratic electorates. New Hampshire Democratic voters are also overwhelmingly secular – they have the lowest rate of weekly church attendance (18 percent compared to an average of 38 percent among states where the question was asked). In five states, more than half of Democratic primary-goers attend church weekly or more. (Church attendance was not among the questions asked in the Iowa poll, unfortunately.)

Because race and ideology are often closely tied to voting patterns, a candidate who could appeal to voters in later, more diverse, more moderate states risks being shut out when two white, liberal states are always at the top of the primary calendar.

Limiting the range of campaign issues

While there is little evidence that Iowa and New Hampshire impact Democratic candidates’ ability to appeal to more diverse voters in later states, what they do affect is the type of candidates available to voters in later states and perhaps even what candidates choose to run in the first place.

Want a Democrat closely focused on urban issues? A conversation about gun violence or policing? Want Democratic Southern Baptists and other churchgoers to have a real say? Putting Iowa and New Hampshire at the head of the Democratic queue makes any of these less likely to happen.

To be fair, there are reasonable arguments for having small states with inexpensive media markets at the front of the calendar. And voters in each of the two states pride themselves on demanding serious retail campaigning from candidates. No doubt, voters in whatever states would replace Iowa and New Hampshire would take time to get up to speed, and a number of practicalities would need to be ironed out.

But while feelings may be hurt, there’s no denying that Democratic electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire are scandalously unrepresentative of the rest of the country, and getting more so by the day. Starting with Iowa and New Hampshire is a throwback – or, perhaps more accurately, an anachronism.

For Republicans, the two states are an odd couple whose ideological differences balance each other out. For Democrats, it’s more that Iowa and New Hampshire are the odd men out: too alike to one another, and too far removed from other states to serve as a good yardstick of what Democratic voters are looking for in a President.

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group and a regular contributor to NHPR. He tweets at @skoczela. He loves New Hampshire. Really.