Saturday, February 4, 2023

Who Votes First?


For as long as I can remember, the "first in the nation" presidential primary has been in New Hampshire, one of the smallest and otherwise least electorally significant states. Back in the day, the NH Primary was always held on the second Tuesday in March (the date when town meetings and non-partisan municipal elections are traditionally held in that state). NH state law still stipulates that the presidential primary held be on that date, but it directs the NH Secretary of State to advance the date, if necessary, to ensure that the NH primary always takes place at least seven days before any "similar election" in any other state. New Hampshire's disproportionate importance in the presidential primary process derives primarily from its "first in the nation" position. Hence the date has been moving earlier and earlier. In 2020, it was February 11. Meanwhile, for the past half-century, the Iowa Caucuses have also acquired unique prominence because of their uniquely early position in the election- year schedule.  In 2020, the Iowa Caucuses took place on February 3 - one week before the NH Primary.

All that is now about to change. Meeting in Philadelphia, the Democratic National Committee has voted approved a plan to rearrange the early Democratic presidential primary calendar. South Carolina - the state which saved Joe Biden's primary campaign in 2020 - was awarded the first primary, on Saturday, February 3, 2024, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on February 6, Georgia on February 13, and Michigan on February 27.

What the calendar will actually look like is still unclear. Republican-run New Hampshire is unlikely to change its law to accommodate the Democrats, who may have to skip NH altogether. A Democratic candidate who ran in and won in New Hampshire on an unapproved date would, according to party rules be penalized, losing half the convention votes he or she had won.

Hurting the feelings of Iowans and New Hampshirites does not seem to have worried the DNC too much. Many Democrats have long objected to the outsized influence of those two, predominantly rural states which are so unrepresentative of either the country as a whole or the Democratic voting base. Like Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is also a red state, but its Democratic voters are heavily African-American and so do at least represent a key constituency of the Democratic voting base. Nevada is actually a more competitive state and so may be more important in the general election. It also heavily represents Latinos, another potentially key constituency within the Democratic party. So the logic of the change is largely unassailable. (A case could be made that better than South Carolina would be a more Democratic-voting or more competitive state like Michigan. Such arguments will likely come up next time.)

The way we elect American presidents is best characterized as crazy. The present primary system is bizarre and can easily result in nominating someone who is not the real first-choice of a majority of the party. The inflated importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, because of the media attention that comes with their early position, has only highlighted the unrepresentative character of those states. 

On the other hand, Iowa and New Hampshire were "retail politics" states, where candidates had to campaign in person and interact directly with voters in a way which those states' relative smallness and other distinctive characteristics required but which would be much less feasible in larger states. The quadrennial image of candidates at New Hampshire diners or at the Iowa State Fair speaks to something important in American political self-understanding.

As a practical matter, those small early states have also made it more possible for "outsiders" to get attention and succeed against more favored insiders - famously, for example, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. The more "direct democracy" scale of those contests has also made it possible for opposition figures to outperform establishment expectations, as happened in New Hampshire with Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (leading to LBJ's withdrawal from the race soon after) and Pat Buchanan in 1992 (foreshadowing both George H.W. Bush's eventual electoral loss and the eventual "populist" turn in the Republican party).

"Democracy" has multiple dimensions. The democratic deficit inherent in allowing such unrepresentative constituencies as Iowa and New Hampshire have such disproportionate influence in the primary process is laudably being corrected by highlighting more diverse constituencies in more representative states. In the process, however, another value in democratic politics is being further diminished with the reduced role for the in-person "retail politics" which was so characteristic of Iowa and New Hampshire.

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