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Early-voting states are white, old, and rural

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A voter placed a ballot inside a box at Woodstock Town Hall in Woodstock, N.H., in 2012. What bonds Iowa and New Hampshire, the early states on the way to the party nominations for president? “They’re white, they’re less metropolitan, they’re rural, and they’re aging,” said William H. Frey, demographer and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.AP/Associated Press

Picture, for a moment, Iowa and New Hampshire fused into one state, a place called New Iowa where people put maple syrup on their corn dogs and rooted for both the Red Sox and the Hawkeyes.

New Iowa, for all its charms, would not look much like the United States at all — a fact worth keeping in mind as voting officially begins Monday in the 2016 presidential contest.

Its electorate would be more than 92 percent white, compared with 69 percent nationwide, and fewer than one-third of its voters would live in big cities, compared with two-thirds in the rest of the country. And even as a merged territory, New Iowa would still be very small, home to just 1.6 percent of the nation's 222 million eligible voters.


Yet, it is these voters — imaginary maps aside — who will be acting as the princes of the presidential nominating process and winnowing the field over the next eight days, first at the Iowa caucuses Monday and then in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9. Taken together, they form a small and strikingly homogeneous group.

"They're white, they're less metropolitan, they're rural, and they're aging," said William H. Frey, demographer and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, who provided the data.

And as the nation experiences a "diversity explosion" — fueled by a booming Hispanic population in the Southeast and Mountain West — New Hampshire and Iowa "are becoming further outliers all the time," Frey said. "They tell you where one extreme part of the electorate is leaning."

Kenneth M. Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, took a slightly different view, as he defended his state's first-in-the-nation primary. He pointed out that, while New Hampshire has the second-whitest electorate in the country, it is varied in other ways — with urban areas such as Manchester and Nashua, suburbs along the Massachusetts border, and rural hamlets in the north.


"Not proportionately, but it does represent different parts of the US," Johnson said.

He also said that, despite the stereotype of the New Hampshire voter as a flinty, sixth-generation Yankee, only a third of voters age 25 and older were born in the state. And more than 30 percent of eligible voters this year were either not old enough to vote in 2008 or lived somewhere other than New Hampshire.

"In fact, it's one of the most mobile states in the country, and I don't think a lot of people appreciate that," Johnson said. "People haven't all lived here since the American Revolution."

If the parties were to choose another state to hold the first nominating contest, the one that most closely matches the country's racial and age makeup is Illinois, Frey said.

But Paul D. Pate, Iowa's secretary of state, said if the first contest were moved to Illinois, it would be harder for underfunded candidates to gain traction because they would have to rely on expensive ad campaigns to communicate with voters. In relatively small Iowa, he said, candidates can travel the state by bus, courting caucus-goers individually in steakhouses and pizza parlors.

"This is much more affordable, and it gives the underdog the opportunity to become the nominee," Pate said.

Pate also downplayed Iowa's lack of racial diversity (it has the fifth-whitest electorate of any state) and largely rural composition, arguing that caucus-goers in Dubuque and Muscatine care about education, health care, and national security, just like voters in Chicago and New York.


"We share many of the same values and priorities as other parts of the country — that's what makes us a country," he said.

James Jennings, a professor emeritus of urban and environmental policy at Tufts University, disagreed and called the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary "a bit archaic."

"There's a point of view being expressed in these lily-white primaries that are not grounded in, or may not be seen as valid in, other parts of the country," he said. "So if we want a more unified nation, it's not a good tool for us getting us there."

Defenders of the New Hampshire primary contend, like Iowans, that the state's relatively compact size allows candidates with fewer resources to compete by working, day after day, to meet voters in living rooms and taverns.

"It really is the last time when candidates actually have to talk to voters, and they really couldn't do this in a big, complicated state," Johnson said. "It has to be a small place where the candidates actually have to confront the voters."

Still, there have been some efforts to give urban and minority voters a bigger voice in the nominating process. In 2006, the Democratic National Committee moved Nevada, which has a large Hispanic population, and South Carolina, which has a sizable African-American community, into the third and fourth positions on the calendar, just behind Iowa and New Hampshire.


But Joshua T. Putnam, a lecturer in political science at the University of Georgia, who studies the primary process, said he does not foresee any state dislodging Iowa or New Hampshire from the front of the pack. Both states have for decades fiercely guarded their electoral franchises against critics who complain that they do not represent the rest of the country.

"We fight every four years," Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa said. "We know there's a lot of people who are jealous of Iowa, but Iowans take this responsibility seriously. And our two parties work together because this is real important to our state, and to our people, and to our economy."

Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.