It’s time to change how we nominate our presidential candidates.
The path to becoming a presidential nominee of a major party is long and convoluted. The main events of this process are the individual primaries and caucuses held by each state. The most well-known are the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which always come first and second, respectively.
This gives these states an outsized share in choosing who will be the nominee. Is it fair for them to have this power? Should different, more diverse states take their place? Or should we change the whole system? Though the answers to these questions are not clear, this is an important conversation we should be having.
Julián Castro, Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, contributed to the public conversation around changing the nominating system this week when he called for a reshuffling of the order of the Democratic primaries.
Castro singled out Iowa and New Hampshire, saying they should no longer be the first two states to vote since they are not representative of Democratic voters nationwide. Castro indirectly pointed to the fact that both of these states are overwhelmingly white, Iowa being 91 percent white and New Hampshire 94 percent white.
The diversity in these states falls far behind the U.S. as a whole, which is estimated to be only about 60 percent white. Castro argued that this lack of diversity devalues the voices that are integral to the success of the Democratic Party.
Critics of Castro point to the fact that South Carolina and Nevada, whose primaries come after Iowa and New Hampshire, are much more diverse. South Carolina has a large African-American population and Nevada a large Latino population.
However, Castro argued Iowa and New Hampshire are bellwether states; campaigns that do not do well in either will not be able to make it to South Carolina or Nevada. He is not wrong in this regard as the only time a Democratic nominee won neither Iowa nor New Hampshire was 1976.
For Castro, these comments are largely political. His campaign has been struggling, as he has had to cut back on staff and did not qualify for the November debate. However, his comments have merit. The system that we use to nominate a presidential candidate is extremely complicated and not very democratic. The question: How can we fix it?
The fact that Iowa and New Hampshire have so much power is unfair. As Castro pointed out, if a candidate does not do well in those states, they will usually have to close up shop. That means states that come later in the primary schedule do not have as many options or as big of a say in choosing who represents the Democrats.
However, all Castro is calling for is having a more diverse state go first the primaries. This will not address the problem of certain states having more power than others, since it will simply substitute one inequality for another.
One of the most obvious answers would be to have every state vote on the same day in a national primary. Like any system, this has its own set of pros and cons. A national primary could significantly reduce the duration of the election and would equally distribute voting power among the states.
However, this process would come with its own drawbacks. State by state primaries allow politicians with little money or name recognition to gain voter support through intensive, on-the-ground campaigning, such as town halls, canvassing and other grassroots actions. This was true in 2008 when Barack Obama was able to beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa, despite her greater name recognition. If there were a national primary, it is likely that people with the most name recognition would win or that a large number of candidates would split the field, allowing a candidate lacking broad popular support to win.
There are a few other solutions that could be implemented. One possible option would be to divide the country up into five sets of ten states and do a rotating primary schedule so that every U.S. state could be part of the first block at least once every 20 years.
However, this would be complicated to implement and still runs into the issue of discriminating against small campaigns that may be unable to compete in 10 states at once. Such a process might also be confusing to voters.
Democracy is often messy, and the nominee selection process is no exception. I don’t know what the right answer is, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. However, this is a conversation we should be having. Maybe, from those conversations, we can come up with a better way to pick our presidential nominees.
Isabelle Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.