It’s Time To End Iowa And New Hampshire’s First In The Nation Status
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus suggested that Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn't get used to their place at the top of the primary calendar. He's right, but fixing the crazy system that put them there isn't going to be easy.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus is suggesting that the RNC may look into changing how primaries are scheduled so that states like Iowa and New Hampshire don’t necessarily go first:
Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee have taken drastic steps to restructure the GOP’s presidential primary process, including cutting the number of debates, compressing the nominating schedule, and introducing harsh penalties for candidates and states that violate party rules.
But with the RNC this week finalizing its rules and regulations for next year’s primary, Priebus said in an interview that there is unfinished business he’d hoped to handle ahead of 2016 and expects the party to address before the next cycle: shaking up the early states on the primary calendar.
“It’s a hot topic. These early states are very used to fighting this out every four years. It’s just something I think we ought to look at as a party,” Priebus said. “If you look at my history, I’ve been very supportive of the early states as general counsel and as chairman. But I don’t think anyone should get too comfortable.”
Such statements are known to sound alarms in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the nominating schedule, where party leaders guard their special status with a righteous zeal. Iowans, in particular, feel perpetually targeted by national Republicans and worry that their leadoff status could be in jeopardy after 2016. Many party officials there feared the collapse of this year’s straw poll could foreshadow the demise of their caucuses.
If anything, the RNC offered protection to those early states this cycle like never before, approving severe penalties for any state that leapfrogged them on the calendar. But Priebus said every aspect of his party’s primary system will be reevaluated after this upcoming election, and said no special treatment will be given to the traditional early states.
“I don’t think there should ever be any sacred cows as to the primary process or the order,” he said.
Priebus raised the issue unsolicited when asked what, if anything, he’d failed to fix ahead of the 2016 primary season. The chairman said he understands the difficulty of displacing any of the four “carve-out” states at the front of the calendar—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—but said the party would benefit from bringing new ideas and fresh blood into the process.
Discussions about changing the order have intensified inside the party, Priebus said, and he expects the issue to be “front and center” when the RNC’s rules committee meets at July’s national convention in Cleveland.
It’s too late to change the rules for 2016, and in fact, the RNC will release a finalized itinerary this week for next year’s primary contests. But party officials are continually debating the contours of a new system.
Priebus said the changes made to next year’s primary process are “just the beginning,” and said even though he won’t serve a fourth term as RNC chairman—meaning he won’t be in a position to implement a system after 2016—he’s got some ideas of what it could look like.
“One of the things I would have been interested in doing is sort of like a rotating primary process, where you would divide the country into five quadrants and have a primary about once every two weeks. And then you could have about a 10-week primary process,” Priebus said. “I’ve always been intrigued by that idea.”
Several other plans have been floated in recent years, Priebus said, including a “random lottery” that would assign each of the 50 states with a number 1 through 5 and result in five primary dates with 10 states voting on each.
Taking aim at the prominence that Iowa and New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent South Carolina and Nevada, have in the Presidential nomination process in both parties has become something of a quadrennial tradition. Every four years or so, political analysts and Political Science Professors around the country will point out the numerous problems that are created by the outsized influence that these candidates have in the nomination process. It is pointed out, for example, that both Iowa and New Hampshire are woefully unrepresentative of the nation as a whole in a number of ways, most particular when it comes to racial and ethnic breakdown. South Carolina, meanwhile, has a closed primary that means that the outcome is typically biased toward the most conservative candidate in the race regardless of whether or not they are a viable candidate for the General Election. Nevada is also not entirely representative of the nation as a whole and the fact that it uses a caucus rather than a primary means that it tends to churn out results out of step with the rest of the nation.
Taking all of that into account, the history of the impact that these early states have had on the primary process in both parties certainly raises eyebrows. Inevitably, when candidates fail to perform up to expectations in these states, they are almost immediately ruled out of contention for their party’s nomination and, most of the time, end up withdrawing shortly after the results are in. We saw it happen in 2012 on the Republican side with Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry, and in 2008 on the Democratic side in 2008 when the results in Iowa led to the end of Joe Biden’s campaign and political pundits across the nation questioning the viability of Hillary Clinton’s campaign based on her third place showing behind John Edwards and Barack Obama. Additionally, there are plenty of examples from previous elections of results from these states having a profound impact on the course of a race. Most famously, of course, President Lyndon Johnson won the 1968 Democratic Primary in New Hampshire, but ended up deciding not to run for re-election because of his narrow margin of victory over Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. President George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, arguably saw his campaign seriously weakened when Pat Buchanan garnered a stronger than expected 35% of the vote in the 1992 Republican New Hampshire Primary. The idea that states that are so unrepresentative of the nation as a whole can have this kind of influence on the selection of a President seems strange to say the very least, and yet that’s how we’ve allowed the system to operate for more than four decades now.
Ideally, I like the idea that Priebus hinted on in the interview above. Instead of having the primary season start in wholly unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and in order to avoid the issue of even a single state having as much influence as they do now, we should switch to a system of regional primaries. Under this kind of system, the nation would be divided into four or five regions, with each region made up of a mix of large and small states so as to counteract the chance that population alone would decide the nomination. Each region would have their primary on a specific day starting in ,say, February with each of the regional primaries spaced four to six weeks apart stretching from February to June. The question of which region goes first could be decided by lottery, or it could be done on a rotating basis, and the system should be left open to reorganizing the regions as deemed necessary. Additionally, I would eliminate all caucuses or other methods of choosing a Presidential nominee other than primaries for the reasons stated here. The advantage of this type of primary, I think, would be that we’d get a far more representative picture of the electorate of both parties, and this would arguably lead to better nominees. I’m also sympathetic to the idea of eliminating closed primaries and allowing people to vote in a primary regardless of their previous voting history, and I’d be open to considering other alternatives for reorganizing a primary system that seems to clearly be broken.
As ideal as the regional primary idea, or any other proposed reforms to the Presidential primary process might be, though, it’s unlikely that it will implemented in the near future, and it’s similarly unlikely that Priebus or anyone else at the RNC would be successful in challenging the primacy of the early primary states. Notwithstanding Priebus’s criticisms of the current process, which are well-placed, the national party committees actually have very little control over primary scheduling. The most that they can do is attempt to strip states that don’t adhere to their schedule of all or a portion of their delegates, but as we saw in both 2008 and 2012 that sanction is rarely enforced and often reversed. Ultimately, the control over the calendar lies in the state legislatures and in the state party system. As we saw in 2008, if other states try to schedule their primary before Iowa and New Hampshire, those states simply respond by moving up their date of the primary or caucus. In 2008 and 2012, that resulted in the absurd spectacle of the Iowa Caucuses taking places only days after New Year’s Day, and there had been threats in both years that either state would move their proceedings to December of the preceding year if any state tried to move in on their exclusive role as the early primary states. One suspects the same thing would happen in the future. As for the regional primary idea, it would require the kind of cooperation among multiple state legislatures and state party committees that quite honestly seems rather impossible in the real world.
Chairman Priebus is right to say that the primacy of the early primary states is not something that should be taken for granted, and it’s long past time that we had a real discussion about fixing a primary system that has become absurd in many respects. Getting from that rhetoric to the reality of actually doing something isn’t going to be easy, though. If the Chairman does give it a try, I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with and I’ll wish him luck, but I’m not going to be optimistic about its chances for success.