In 2009, I wrote about the “The Iowa Debacle” in the Hinckley Journal of Politics and now, in 2020, we have yet another debacle at the hands of the Iowa caucuses.
The inability to accurately and timely report the results of the caucuses (a fundamental aspect of a democracy) is something that even Third World countries are routinely able to provide. The inability to do so in Iowa undermines the legitimacy of the results and only further proves that Iowa and its archaic system is not equipped to hold the outsized role it currently occupies in our country’s politics.
But 2020 was not the beginning of the mess. The 2016 presidential election ultimately left us with two candidates who made it to election day with historically unfavorable rates. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were so strongly disliked that their unfavorability ratings were at least 10 points higher than their favorability ratings in a number of polls that November.
Yet time and time again, when we talk about electoral reform, there is little discussion about changing the nominating process itself, how it plays out, the order of states, and why that has a profound effect on who becomes the nominee. If we fix the nominating process, we will end up with more favorable candidates and increase voter participation along the way.
So how did we get here. Back in 1968, there was widespread voter unrest prior to and at the Democratic National Convention. This unrest led to, among other efforts, the McGovern-Fraser Commission and changes in the nominating process itself. These changes also, inadvertently, created one of our core problems today: Iowa’s first-in-the-nation crown. Ever since, political parties have not had the courage change the role Iowa plays. Recall that in 2008, states that sought to move their contests earlier in the election season were punished.
But does it matter? Since Iowa became the first nominating contest, no candidate, except John McCain, has won their party’s nomination without finishing at least third in Iowa. So while Iowa may not always predict the nominee, the contest has tremendous influence on who does not win the nomination because finishing poorly in the Iowa Caucuses is a death-knell in a campaign.
Take 2016 for example. Immediately following the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley both formally withdrew from consideration. Two days later, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum wrapped up their campaigns. A week later, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina were finished. In the span of a week, six candidates quit their campaigns and only two states had held contests.
So why Iowa? Why are the citizens in Iowa more important than the citizens of any other state? With all due respect to Iowans, they are not any more special than the citizens of any other state. Should we just move to a national primary? A national primary would favor larger, more populous states and better-known, better-funded candidates. Instead, we need a nominating process where the same states do not have power year after year to be first otherwise, the nominating process creates systemic bias.
A solution I propose is a system whereby voter turnout (by percentage) determines the order of states in the nominating process. States with the highest turnout in the preceding general presidential election would be allowed to hold their primary elections earlier than states with lower turnout.
The national party committees would establish voter turnout from each state using voter eligible population numbers from the previous general presidential election. To avoid a protracted nominating process, the third Tuesday in March would be used as the earliest date for any contest. States would then be placed in groups of five and the five states with the highest turnout can hold their contests as early as the third Tuesday in March. The next five would be allowed to hold their contests one week later and so on until all have had an opportunity to participate. States could move their contests but would be barred from holding them prior to their specified date.
A system like that described above, creates incentives for voter participation, ends favoritism towards any particular state, and allows for diverse states at the beginning of the nomination process.
Cody Rogers, a Washington, D.C., attorney, served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, from 2008 to 2011.