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Should We Reform the Presidential Nomination Process?

by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

The process by which the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee has faced increased scrutiny this election cycle, especially after a flop at the Iowa caucuses. One argument has been that the first two states that hold a caucus or primary, Iowa and New Hampshire, do not represent the demographics of the Democratic Party and hold an outsized influence on choosing the party’s nominee.  A majority of Democratic voters (56%) believe that Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary have too much influence over who wins the party’s presidential nomination, according to the Monmouth University Poll. One in four say having these states go first hinders the party’s ability to nominate the best candidate. It may be time to shake up the primary calendar and try something different.

To begin, what are some of the advantages of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first? Candidates with limited funds can stay competitive in small states with less expensive media markets but would not be able to compete against more well-funded candidates in bigger states. Since Iowa and New Hampshire are small states, candidates who are less well known or have fewer supporters are given the opportunity to gain traction and secure a win, something that would not be possible if larger states like California went first.

Candidates turn to different methods of campaigning in these states to establish closeness with the electorate. For example, in small states like New Hampshire, candidates hold small, intimate gatherings with voters like town halls. In bigger states there wouldn’t be an incentive to hold these types of events. Candidates would be more focused on holding large rallies and giving interviews on television. Also, candidates would have little motivation to campaign in a smaller state like New Hampshire if a larger state like Florida (with more delegates to be won) were to vote first.

However, there are some disadvantages to the current system as well. The first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, provide poor representations of the demographics of the Democratic Party. For example, having New Hampshire as the first primary has been criticized because the state’s racial demographics are 90% white, with African Americans only making up 1.7% of the population, Asian Americans 3%, and Hispanic Americans 3.9% according to the US Census Bureau.

The addition of Nevada and South Carolina as early states somewhat offsets the problem regarding the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire. With this, some claim the first four states in the nomination process are somewhat representative of the country. Hispanic Americans account for 29% of Nevada’s population. In South Carolina, African Americans account for 27% of the population and make up an even larger share of the Democratic electorate. The media uses these states to gauge candidates’ support among minority groups. 

 However, if a candidate does not perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire, they are usually compelled to drop out of the race and never have the opportunity to compete in more diverse states. The candidates that perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire get increased media coverage that propels their campaigns. The process is all about gaining momentum leading up to Super Tuesday.

Iowa’s caucus system has been criticized for being noninclusive. It disenfranchises large parts of the state’s population due to its design and procedures. According to the ACLU of Iowa, the physical demands of caucusing in the state, “… makes participation difficult for people who can’t get or afford child care, people living with disabilities or mobility issues, people who lack transportation, and people who work evenings.” According to the Brookings Institute, the current way, “caters to older voters and those for whom politics is a passion.” Voter turnout in Iowa was also lower than expected this year.

What are some possible solutions or reforms that can be made to better the process? There are multiple different options and proposed reforms that can replace or complement what we have now. The Monmouth University Poll shows a majority of Democratic voters (58%) favor a national primary day. A national primary day would make it so that all states hold a presidential primary election on the same day. Proponents of this reform claim that this system would be more efficient, however, opponents argue that it would be very expensive for candidates to compete on a national scale.

Another reform that garnered 15% support in the poll is having a few other states hold their contests on the same days as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. This would keep the drawn out process of the current system and calm the criticism surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire going first.

According to the Monmouth Poll, one in ten support replacing the current system with grouped primaries. Rotating regional primaries is one reform that The National Association of Secretaries of State has supported. This would group states by their geographical location (making segments) and create the primary schedule according to region. The order of these primary elections according to region would be rotated each election cycle.

Another possible reform is the elimination of caucuses and establishing primaries with ranked-choice voting. Not only does this address the concern over the accessibility of caucuses, but it may also answer the concerns expressed by Democrats over how much influence early states like Iowa and New Hampshire have over the candidate pool. Ranked-choice voting would enable fringe candidates to stay in the race even after Iowa and New Hampshire by allowing people to rank their preferences in a primary vote.

Ranked-choice voting could ensure that nominees have broader support among the electorate. According to FairVote, “The system incentivizes candidates to work together rather than attack one another in the hopes of earning backup choices, and to campaign to a broad swath of voters rather than just their own base.” Nevada used ranked-choice voting in their early voting period which helped increase voter turnout significantly according to FairVote. 

It might be time to give more consideration to reforming the current presidential nomination system. Criticism over Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s status as the first states to vote on presidential candidates has caused many to reexamine the process. Within our country’s history, the way political parties nominate their presidential nominees has evolved and changed to suit cultural shifts. By weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the current system, we can propose the right reforms.