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Opinion | Ben Jackson

The Democratic primaries and the white privilege of Iowa and N.H.

John Kerry campaigned in Keene, N.H., in January 2004.Getty Images/File/Getty Images

DURING THE SUMMER, a white supremacist targeted, shot, and killed people of color in a El Paso, Texas, Walmart. It was not an anomaly. In the weeks since, police have foiled at least four white supremacist far-right attacks. As the racial, ethnic, and religious hatred of the president stokes these attackers into a deadly conflagration, while the GOP does nothing but support him, it becomes more evident that dramatic change is necessary in the people we elect and the way in which we elect them.

I am a life-long registered Democrat — partly because when it comes to racial justice, Democrats say a lot of the right things. Of the two major parties, Democrats are the most diverse, with more minority candidates and elected officials. The current Democratic field of presidential candidates is the most diverse slate in history. But it probably won’t matter, because the most important voices we hear from are in two of the whitest states in America — Iowa and New Hampshire.


If the Democrats are serious about fighting systemic white supremacy in our nation, we need to end the white privilege in our nominating process.

It’s difficult to overstate the power of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Success in these contests means credibility, which translates into media coverage and a financial windfall. Conversely, a loss — or even a worse-than-expected showing — can be the death knell of a candidacy. In his 2008 book “The Making of the Presidential Candidates,” Northeastern professor William Mayer concluded that a New Hampshire win equates to a 27 percent increase in national primary votes. This advantage is often what anoints winners and forces losers out of the race.


So who are these people who decide so much for the rest of America?

In 2017, Iowans were 86.5 percent white, 5.7 percent Hispanic, and 3.3 percent black. New Hampshire is even whiter — it’s 90.9 percent white, 3.4 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black. How does this compare to the rest of the nation? It’s the demographic equivalent of stepping out of a dark movie theater into the whitest, brightest glare. As a whole, the United States is 61.5 percent white, 17.6 percent Hispanic, and 12.3 percent black. The powerful and early contests dramatically underrepresent American voters of color.

And when we look at the demographics of Democrats, it gets worse.

More than 90 percent of black voters preferred the Democratic candidates in the 2018 US House races. Nationally, when given a two-party choice, white voters identified as Democrats only 43 percent of the time. Only 39 percent of whites voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But black voters? They identify as Democrats 84 percent of the time. While black Americans are fewer than 13 percent of the population, they are about 20 percent of all Democratic voters. This is similarly true of Hispanic and Latinx voters: Nearly 70 percent voted for Democrats in 2018.

By letting white states go first, the Democratic Party is ignoring its most loyal voters in favor of a demographic group that is abandoning it. This is what institutional racism looks like.


I grew up in New Hampshire. In the early 1990s, I graduated from the closest thing to an “inner city” high school the state has. I personally knew fewer than a dozen students of color in a school of 2,000 students. Every four years, white male presidential candidates swarmed the state, darting back and forth across the icy streets, shaking hands and begging for votes. I nearly ran Jerry Brown over in my parents’ Subaru as he and his entourage darted across a Manchester street without looking.

I learned something important in those formative years — years in which I met nearly every person vying for the highest office in the land. I learned there is no special wisdom, experience, or insight the voters of the Granite State possess that uniquely qualifies them to steer our national leadership. By and large, they are good, kind, white people who don’t have any personal knowledge of what challenges face voters of color across the nation. Much like those who attend caucuses in Iowa.

The national primary system evolved in the early 20th century, when the ability to communicate with the electorate across the nation was not nearly what it is today. Candidates traveled by train from state to state to bring their message to voters. These early primaries were coming-out tours, often providing the only opportunity for voters to hear the voices of their leaders. This is not the world which we now inhabit. Instant access to the entire electorate through myriad traditional and emerging channels has rendered the staggered primary obsolete. There is no need to give New Hampshire and Iowa — and their white residents — preferential treatment. We do it for no reason other than it is what we have always done.


A single national primary shortly before the nominating convention would give all voters an equal say in determining their party’s standard-bearer. It would also shorten the campaign, reducing the need to raise staggering amounts of money nearly two years before a presidential election. The people we elect to govern could spend their time doing so instead of campaigning for their next election. From sea to sea, we would give electoral power to the very voters we as Democrats claim to care about. The result would be a party and a government that looks more like the people they aspire to represent.

As Democrats, we talk a big game. But it’s our good deeds, not our good words, that will illustrate how different we are from those whose racist rhetoric we love to decry. I’d like to surrender my electoral white privilege.

I hope my party lets me.

Ben Jackson is a writer.