Observing the comings and goings in both Iowa and New Hampshire this month, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt is clearly fed up. The system is rigged, broken and (obviously)… racist. With all that in mind, the author vented his frustrations at the Gray Lady, declaring once and for all that Iowa should never go first again. Let’s let him explain his reasoning.
Right now, I’m as obsessed as anyone with the early-state polls. Yet I also want to use this moment to point out how bizarre the current system is — and to make a plea: The 2020 cycle should be the last time that Iowa and New Hampshire benefit at the country’s expense.
The strongest part of the case for change, of course, is the racial aspect of the current calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the country’s whitest states. About 6 percent of their combined population is black or Asian-American. Almost 87 percent is non-Hispanic white, compared with 60 percent for the country as a whole. Demographically, Iowa and New Hampshire look roughly like the America of 1870.
Julián Castro, the former presidential candidate, was right when he called out the Democratic Party’s hypocritical support for the status quo. “Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” Castro said. But Democrats can’t “complain about Republicans suppressing the votes of people of color, and then begin our nominating contest in two states that hardly have people of color.”
In addition to both Iowa and New Hampshire being “too white” (according to the white, male author), Leonhardt also complains that neither of them is home to a city with more than 250,000 people. On top of that, both states boast disproportionately high numbers of retired people and fewer under the age of 40 than the national average.
In other words, Iowa and New Hampshire are magnets for old, white people… precisely who we don’t need picking the Democratic Party’s nominee.
Let me first say that at least in terms of the final conclusion, Leonhardt is preaching to the choir here. I’ve been railing against this unpleasant “tradition” for as long as I’ve been interested in politics. Letting these two small states go first and determine who gets the much-coveted “momentum” going into Super Tuesday distorts the process and gives far too much power to certain special interests, such as Iowa’s ethanol lobby. The honor of going first needs to be spread around and I’ve long been in favor of an entirely revamped system, such as a series of regional primaries that rotate in order every four years.
But with that said, Leonhardt’s specific complaints are rather odd, to say the least. For evidence of the racism inherent in the system, the author points to the fact that both Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are out of the race and this is blamed on their inability to gain traction in the first two states to vote. To bolster this argument, he notes that both of those candidates of color “were doing as well as Amy Klobuchar in early polls of more diverse states.” That’s a true statement to be sure, but doing as well as Amy Klobuchar back then was akin to saying that you’re doing as well as Joe Walsh is in the GOP primary. Klobuchar only recently cracked double digits in her first polls and she did so because she didn’t quit.
Kamala Harris had her own surge for a while nationally, but she never got into the top tier in California… her home state. And her campaign was famously in a constant state of upheaval, with staffers fighting and the candidate changing her answers on key issues like a leaf fluttering in the breeze. As for Booker, he never climbed in the polls significantly, even in the more “diverse” states containing large cities. He wasn’t offering anything that the voters couldn’t already get from Sanders and Warren. He just wasn’t a particularly exciting speaker or candidate.
Finally, as we peel away all of the clutter and get to what Leonhardt is obviously saying here, the author should keep in mind precisely which people he’s talking about. Republicans and conservatives don’t get to vote in the Democrats’ primaries and caucuses and they’re not being polled on the question. If you think there are too many racists controlling the fate of the nomination process, those are racist Democrats you’re talking about.
But even that argument doesn’t hold much water. South Carolina is also one of the earliest states to vote, is far more diverse and controls more delegates than either Iowa or New Hampshire. And from wire to wire so far they have supported Joe Biden, who still has double the support of his nearest competitor, particularly among black voters. And most of those not backing Biden back Bernie Sanders, so the two oldest, whitest, male Democrats imaginable are running the table. So even if we let South Carolina go first, it’s not looking as if the results would be markedly different and both Harris and Booker probably wouldn’t still be in the race at this point anyway.