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Kill the tradition: N.H. and Iowa should not vote first

Some customs must die. Like the first-in-the-nation primary and caucuses.

Participants in the Iowa Democratic caucus at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3.Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A hundred years ago, New Hampshire blazed a trail as the first among 20 states to hold a 1920 presidential primary election. It is a tradition that has endured for the century since, and will repeat on Feb. 11 — a fact owed not just to custom, but to the state’s leaders and voters clinging to their power to shape elections, and thus, the nation. In Iowa, where chaos has ensued since Monday night’s caucus results have been called into question, leaders have been just as reluctant to relinquish their decades-long disproportionate influence over the country’s presidential elections as the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire has also, frankly, been a source of influence for the Globe, a way for this editorial board to play kingmaker alongside New Hampshire voters. But this year, we are holding our endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate until after the New Hampshire primary. Sometimes, it’s more important to stand up for what’s right than what’s in one’s own interests: More important than wielding our influence on a single small state’s primary, we believe, is to call for the end of an antiquated system that gives outsized influence in choosing presidents to two states that, demographically, more resemble 19th-century America than they do the America of today.


Take, for starters, that only 1.7 percent of New Hampshire’s population is Black, in a country where Blacks make up 12 percent of the population. Or consider that the nation’s percentage of Latinos is triple that of New Hampshire’s, at only 6.1 percent. New Hampshire also has the second oldest population in the country, and a relatively small fraction of people in their 20s and 30s, whose future will be determined by presidential policies of today on a range of issues, from climate change to the deficit. Iowa fares no better on most of those scores; like New Hampshire, it has a population that is about 90 percent white in a country that is 60 percent white. Both Iowa and New Hampshire have a higher proportion of homeowners than the national average, which means that, in addition to privileging the concerns of the whiter, older segments of the US population and the policy interests of, for example, Iowa corn farmers who want ethanol subsidies, the early voting in these states probably discounts the perspectives of those who rent rather than those who have secure housing.

Lest this influence seem hypothetical, consider that no president in 40 years except Bill Clinton has won his party’s nomination without first winning Iowa or New Hampshire. Or look at what happened this year to Senator Kamala Harris of California, who faltered in part due to a failure to gain traction in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates less popular among people of color, however, like former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, can thrive in homogenous New Hampshire and Iowa. A National Bureau of Economic Research study of the 2004 presidential primary estimated that people in early-voting states had up to 20 times the influence in candidate selection of voters in later primaries.


This is not a matter of judgment against the good people of Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s clear that many voters in both states — or at least, the fraction of eligible voters who actually turn out in the Democratic caucuses and primary — take seriously their role in choosing presidential candidates and, as a result, probably do more to educate themselves on the candidates at an early stage. That kind of civic engagement is laudable, if not necessarily fair to preserve for the rarefied and relatively few Americans who live in those states.


People argue, with good reason, that there’s a value to the kind of retail politics that presidential candidates are forced to engage in when small states have outsized influence, like going to spaghetti dinners and holding town halls, where they meet voters face to face. It’s those kinds of encounters that served Jimmy Carter well, for example, in 1976 in Iowa and New Hampshire, and propelled his campaign forward to securing the nomination. But retail politics and eliminating the first-in-the-nation status of New Hampshire and Iowa are not mutually exclusive; a new system could be designed that allows small-in-population states that are more diverse and representative, like Rhode Island or New Mexico, to play this role, or that adds additional states as first-out-the-gate to counterbalance the skewed demographics of states like New Hampshire.

Some will undoubtedly say that putting a first primary and caucuses anywhere in the country is likely to be flawed in some respect in attempts to represent the nation. But there are better ways around this than merely resigning ourselves to giving New Hampshire and Iowa first-in-the-nation status. One would be to choose two to four states that more resemble the demographic makeup of the country as a whole. Take, for example, Illinois, whose population by age, race, and certain economic factors very much resembles the makeup of the nation. And yet, aside from being the birthplace of certain of the country’s presidents, it has never been given anywhere near the attention by presidential campaigns and media of Iowa and New Hampshire, carrying essentially no significance in presidential elections.


Another option would be to have a rotating set of primary states (or regions) so that, in any given presidential election year, the influence might be outsized, but over time there would be greater balance in choosing candidates. Such a proposal would be most fair if states were selected that vary in size and that have demographic diversity across racial, economic, age, and other factors. An added bonus of a rotating system could be that voters feel more engaged when it comes to the general election. A national primary, whereby all states determine their preference at once, should not be ruled out either. While this might make retail politics obsolete, that might be an inevitable trend in the era of social media anyway.

State laws in New Hampshire and Iowa explicitly call for their primary and caucuses, respectively, to be the first in the nation. But the Democratic Party, not the states, has the final say over its own nominating process. If the party decided it would not recognize the results from New Hampshire and Iowa — and then stuck to that pledge — it could break the tradition. There’s precedent: In 2008, the Democrats refused to recognize the full results of the Florida and Michigan primaries when the states scheduled them earlier than the rules allowed. The party successfully prevented the states from jumping the line.


With each passing election, the privileged place of Iowa and New Hampshire becomes harder to defend. The vote-counting snafu in Iowa this week seems to have unleashed years of pent-up frustration about a system that is unfair to Americans in the 48 other states and continues to distort American politics. New England loves its traditions, and many of them, like town meetings and Fourth of July parades, ought to be preserved. But in the century since New Hampshire seized the role as the first-in-the-nation primary, much has changed. The demographic makeup of the nation has changed. Now it’s time for the way we nominate presidents to change with it.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.