South Carolina primary
Biden supporters attend a campaign event on Feb. 29, 2020 at the University of South Carolina Credit: Adam Schultz

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez kicked off a fresh round of Iowa and New Hampshire-bashing when he told the New York Times earlier this month that the “status quo” of the presidential primary schedule is “clearly unacceptable.” He added, “A diverse state or states need to be first. The difference between going first and going third is really important. We know the importance of momentum in Democratic primaries.”

This is a familiar bit of conventional wisdom that happens to be wrong.

Going first is highly overrated. The presidential contest with the biggest clout on the Democratic primary schedule isn’t the leadoff hitter: overwhelmingly white Iowa. It’s the state that bats cleanup: majority-Black South Carolina.

To give nonwhite voters more voice in their presidential nominee selection, Democrats diversified their early primary schedule in 2008, moving Nevada, which had a 2020 caucus turnout that was 17% Hispanic, third, and South Carolina, which had a 56% African-American turnout in its 2020 primary, fourth, just following nearly all-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The system has worked as intended.

Each winning nominee since the change—Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Joe Biden in 2020—has been the candidate preferred by South Carolina voters and, in turn, the majority of African American primary voters. They were all buoyed by big delegate margins in southern states where African Americans comprise a majority of the Democratic electorate, or close to it, starting with South Carolina and carrying over to Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. (All three candidates also won Virginia and North Carolina, which have some “Black Belt” counties with a population that’s more than 40% African American.)

Iowa and New Hampshire historically have helped cull the field, but they haven’t teamed up to effectively determine the ultimate winner since 2004, which was before the elevation of Nevada and South Carolina. Part of the reason why Iowa and New Hampshire can’t easily pick the nominee is that the winner of the first contest doesn’t automatically generate enough momentum to win the second. The only Democrats to have done so in the modern primary era, in a competitive contest, are Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and John Kerry. In fact, this a reason to avoid going first; voters in the state that goes second have an incentive to punish the winner of the first and avoid ending the race prematurely.

Barack Obama in 2008 certainly got a boost of legitimacy out of Iowa, but any momentum from it was blunted by Clinton in New Hampshire. He needed his slight delegate edge in Nevada and landslide South Carolina win to get his campaign back on track.

Bernie Sanders thought he might have been able to win the 2020 Democratic nomination with a strong run in the early states. He won the raw popular vote in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada (though in the complicated and delayed Iowa caucus math, Pete Buttigieg wrung out two more delegates than Sanders.) If momentum mattered, Sanders’ string of wins would have carried him through South Carolina and the Super Tuesday contests that quickly followed. But demographically distinct South Carolina made up its own mind, following the cue not of northern white voters but its own revered Rep. Jim Clyburn.

The influence of Nevada and South Carolina was also felt before a single vote was cast in Iowa and New Hampshire because candidates won invites to debates based on their poll performance in any of the early states, as well as nationally. In December 2019, Tom Steyer scored an invite solely based on Nevada and South Carolina polls. You didn’t have to be strong in Iowa and New Hampshire to get your voice heard. You didn’t even need a good showing on Election Day, as Joe Biden proved.

Years ago, a typical complaint about the Iowa caucus was that it was dominated by left-wing interest groups and pulled candidates too far to the left. Howard Dean voiced this complaint in 2000, before disavowing it during his own 2004 campaign. But the current dominance of South Carolina hasn’t compromised electability. Under the current system, two of the three South Carolina winners became president, and the third at least won the national popular vote, which speaks well of the pragmatism and political savvy of African American voters across the state and the country.

So what exactly is the problem that needs solving?

Folks could still argue that Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t racially representative enough to warrant any preferential treatment, regardless of South Carolina’s influence. But both states still provide two benefits.

One is regional diversity; Democrats start the process with a Midwestern state and a Northeastern state before moving to the Southwest and Southeast. As the eventual nominee has to compete nationwide, hitting every region of the country early is a worthwhile exercise, even though some of those regions are heavily white.

The second is retail politics. What little up-close contact that remains in the presidential primary process is found in those two lightly populated states. And since they have had the first contests for so long, they have hyper-informed primary electorates. That doesn’t make them representative of the country, but it does mean they take their responsibility seriously. Already, the addition of donor thresholds to the debate invite criteria, along with early voting in big Super Tuesday states, have increased the importance of money and diluted the impact of person-to-person campaigning. Perhaps we shouldn’t take the next step, starting the primary season in California and Texas and extinguishing retail politics completely.

The argument for keeping Iowa and New Hampshire where they are does not extend to keeping the caucus system in Iowa and Nevada. Whatever homespun charm caucuses once had, when far fewer people were involved, has been lost forever. The rules are too complicated, and the math is too fuzzy. In the last three Democratic races, controversies over delegate allocation have marred at least one of the early caucuses, needlessly casting a dark cloud over the process. The case for primaries over caucuses at this point is open and shut. Perhaps New Hampshire will huff about not being the first “primary” state anymore, but they will have to get over it.

Aside from the caucus issue, Democrats have a process that works. Nonwhite voters not only play a role in determining the nominee, African American voters play the biggest role given their place in the batting order. And they have done so in a way that benefits candidates with a strong chance of winning general elections. The 2008 fixes were smart and—owing to the historic anomaly of then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid being obsessed with getting Nevada in the mix—it made the top of the order perfect for a party built on a coalition on diversity. This is a classic if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it situation.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.