Iowa and New Hampshire Should Keep Voting First

As Democrats confirmed their (planned) schedule of primaries and caucuses for the 2016 election, Ed Kilgore is upset that Iowa and New Hampshire (and Nevada and South Carolina) are keeping their spots:

The Iowa/New Hampshire chokehold on the beginnings of the presidential nominating cycle, shrewdly modified a couple of cycles ago to cut one western and one southern state in on the action, will continue, despite the many words regularly spilled about the irrationality if not injustice of the custom.

I’ll accept arbitrary, but I disagree with irrational and unjust.

In the 1970s and perhaps 1980s, it made sense to care a lot about the sequence of the primaries and caucuses. These days, however, the primaries have more or less returned to what they were pre-reform: useful information for the party actors who dominate the process. That’s not all, of course. These events also are the technical means by which the party consensus is carried out. Beyond that, it’s the perceptions of party actors that matter, and those high-information people shouldn’t be overly fooled by a candidate who benefits from favorable demographics in an early state.

Granted, voters in New Hampshire at times have appeared to be willfully contrarian, seemingly voting against Iowa winners just for the sake of mattering, or perhaps out of sheer cussedness. But it’s not as if John McCain was able to make much of his New Hampshire win in 2000, for example.

Any combination of early states is going to be arbitrary. The alternative, however, is a national primary, and that’s extremely dangerous for the parties. There’s no way that a Newt Gingrich is going to win a sequential process, but a short surge at the right time could yield any number of weird results in a large field, which is what allowed Gingrich to win in South Carolina in 2012. So the sequential process makes lots of sense, but once you have that you’re going to wind up with some state getting to go first.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.