Every four years, Iowans are deluged with the talking points, the stump speeches, the polls and, of course, the ads. They also hear that they shouldn’t be first. Iowans are too white, too old and too few to merit first-in-the-nation status, say the critics. But if Iowa shouldn’t be first, who should be? For more than a century, reformers have been proposing ideas for how to change the primary system. And they’ve been failing. And they’ll probably continue to fail.
No one is going to persuade state and party machinery to change the current primary system anytime soon. However, these ideas can at least help show what works (and what doesn’t) about the way things are now. Here are just a few of the ideas people have proposed over the years:
1. Pick A New State
Just what it sounds like: let someone else go before Iowa and New Hampshire.
Who has promoted it
Someone new every cycle. Time and the Washington Post’s The Fix blog (twice!) have weighed in in the past year, as has this thread of redditors. (NPR’s own Asma Khalid will have her own best-first-state analysis coming out soon.)
People generally have two big criticisms of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status (and New Hampshire’s, as well): (1) that the states are not representative of the rest of the country, and (2) that they’re too tiny. Were a state like California or Texas or Florida or New York first, a much bigger share of the U.S. population would get a shot at shaping the presidential race early. And with any of those states (and plenty of others) you get more diversity; Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest states in the country, as well as two of the most rural.
Iowa’s smallness is in some ways a feature, not a bug, in that it allows less well funded candidates a fair shot (see: Rick Santorum, 2012, and Mike Huckabee, 2008). The state’s caucus “ensures that there is at least one place where a candidate with a compelling message has a shot at winning, regardless of money or national fame,” as the Des Moines Register’s Kathy O’Bradovich argued in October.
There’s also more to being representative than race and ethnicity. A 2009 paper by the University of Iowa’s Michael Lewis-Beck and Missouri’s Peverill Squire found that Iowa was the most representative state economically at the time, as well as relatively representative (12th out of 50 states) when a broad range of social, demographic and economic factors were included.
In addition, simply picking a new state wouldn’t solve all of the problems with the current system. In 2008, the scramble to hold early caucuses and primaries led to a massively front-loaded calendar. Scrambling the states into a new order wouldn’t have stopped that struggle from happening.
2. National Primary
Let people nationwide cast their primary ballots all at once.
Who has promoted it
Rep. Richard Hobson in 1911 and a lot more people since then. Well over 100 bills and resolutions have been introduced in Congress since then to try to create a national primary.
A national primary would eliminate worries about one or two states having outsize sway by virtue of voting super early. Not only that, but it would make a complicated calendar way less complex and stop the constant shifting of dates.
And by eliminating a bunch of confusion, it might make primaries “more accessible to the average voter,” which could in turn make for “more moderate candidates who are more representative of their constituents,” as Pacific Standard’s Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz wrote in 2014.
It would make money and name recognition even more important than they already are. Instead of having to focus early on buying ads in Iowa (or whichever state might otherwise go first), a candidate would have a whole nation of media markets to try to hit. That means a less well funded candidate who currently can stand a chance in the small early states right now would be at a huge disadvantage.
It could also disadvantage a grass-roots-fueled candidate like Bernie Sanders. The Vermont independent leads or is closely matched with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the two early states of Iowa and New Hampshire this year, but he trails by double digits in most national polls.
In addition, this kind of plan could mean that candidates would focus only on the highest-population states, leaving smaller and largely rural states without many cities — and therefore fewer delegates — all but abandoned. That’s what Alabama’s then-Secretary of State Beth Chapman wrote at U.S. News in 2012.
3. Rotating Regional Primary
Don’t want to give a couple of states all the early-voting power, every single election? A rotating regional primary would break up the U.S. into a few segments and let each take a turn going first. Under perhaps the best-known rotating primary plan, put forward by the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2008, there would be four regions (East, Midwest, South and West), with each taking one primary slot (in March, April, May or June). The order of regions would then rotate in each election cycle.
Who has promoted it
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, the National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Lieutenant Governors Association and plenty of others.
A scheduled system like this would get rid of the date-wrangling that led to a superearly nominating season in 2008. This is the first reason that the secretaries of state association gave in its 2008 proposal, pointing out that 37 states voted before Feb. 29 that year, while only nine did so in 2000.
It also could give voters more time to get to know the candidates and give more informed votes, not to mention potentially giving more voters a say in who eventually gets nominated, the group argued.
Finally, it could make campaigning more efficient — no longer would candidates have to hop from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina for a few months. And as the University of Arizona’s Barbara Norrander has argued, it would make campaign ads more efficient. (Consider the border-residing Minnesotans and Illinoisans currently being subjected to Iowa’s campaign ads).
Here’s one weird twist: The secretaries of state proposal still puts Iowa and New Hampshire first, “based upon their tradition of promoting retail politics.” That defeats the purpose of reforming the system to some degree, keeping those two demographically unrepresentative states at the front of the calendar.
But leaving that aside, there are other potential problems with rotating regional primaries. While the plan seeks to equalize states’ participation in primaries, whichever region goes last in any given cycle runs the risk of being meaningless; it’s possible the winners will already be apparent by the time the final contest rolls around.
Certain candidates would also probably benefit more in any given election based on which region goes first, as political scientists Steven Smith and Melanie Springer wrote in 2009. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, could potentially benefit far more if this primary season started with South, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could get a big initial boost from a Northeastern primary. Not only that, but knowing that her or his region would be first in the next election, a strong candidate in one region could “block out a strong candidate from another region,” as former Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett argued.
And maybe taking things a few states at a time isn’t such a bad idea, argues Norrander.
“Most would agree that face-to-face meetings between the candidates and real voters are a good component of the current system,” she writes. “Because of the large size of each region, candidate strategy will consist of television advertising and tarmac campaigning.”
4. The Delaware Plan
Let the little states go first. The Delaware Plan separates states into four groups, each with 12 or 13 states, as explained by voting-reform advocacy group FairVote. Group 1, consisting of the smallest-population states and territories, votes first, followed by Group 2 one month later, and so on.
Who has promoted it
Most notably, the RNC considered the Delaware Plan in 2000.
The point of the Delaware Plan was to keep the nomination season from growing shorter and shorter, as states fought to go earlier and earlier, as USA Today reported in 2000. That year, the season was so short that two-thirds of the states ended up “without a voice,” the paper reported.
The Delaware Plan tries to equalize states: Smaller states naturally have a smaller voice, but they’d get amplified by being earlier. Meanwhile, the powerful larger states’ voices would be turned down a bit by being later. And because a candidate couldn’t win the nomination very early, it would prolong the primary season, giving people longer to learn about the candidate and make their decisions.
In addition, it could equalize candidates to some degree — candidates with lots of grass-roots support could likewise gain ground in the small states and potentially then be able to compete in the bigger states, as FairVote argues.
Smaller states tend to be less urban than the rest of the country, not to mention whiter, as Smith and Springer wrote — meaning this plan wouldn’t exactly solve the issue of early states not being representative.
They also add that starting with 12 states that aren’t geographically grouped would create some super-inefficient campaigns, as opposed to the way that a regional plan might make campaigning easier.
In addition, starting off with so many states at once could still favor better-funded candidates, Norrander points out.
5. The Ohio Plan
This is a sort of compromise between the Delaware Plan and the rotating regional plan. The Ohio Plan would have let four current early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada) go first, followed by a group of 15 small states and territories.
After that, three bigger groups of states would take turns holding their primaries. Each of those groups would have had at least one high-population “anchor state,” as Brookings’ Elaine Kamarck explains.
Who has promoted it
The Ohio Plan was proposed by Bob Bennett, the then-chairman of the Ohio GOP, before the 2008 election.
Bennett argued that his plan would be more acceptable to big states than the Delaware Plan while maintaining the kind of retail politics influence that small states — and the current early states — allow. In addition, keeping South Carolina and Nevada early would add more diversity early in the process than the Delaware Plan.
The plan would still maintain some of the cons of the secretaries of states’ and Delaware plans — despite the early participation of South Carolina and Nevada, there are still a lot of very white states with early influence. In addition, candidates would have to hit a lot of geographically far-flung states at once.
6. Graduated Random Presidential Primaries (Aka ‘The California Plan,’ Aka ‘The American Plan’)
It’s a little like the Delaware Plan in the sense that smaller states would go first. However, it’s way more complicated.
So here goes: There would be 10 caucus periods, each lasting two weeks. States with fewer congressional districts would go first, followed by states with a few more in the next period and so on.
This would be according to a particular formula: States with a total of eight districts would go first, with the states being randomly selected. So, for example, Kansas and Mississippi, which each have four districts, might be in the first round. The next round, the number of districts would total 16. The next, 24.
But after that, the numbers get less straightforward. To keep the biggest states like New York and California from always going nearly last, the plan allows for some bigger district totals to go earlier. The order for all 10 caucus rounds would be eight, 16, 24, 56, 32, 64, 40, 72, 48 and then 80 districts, according to FairVote.
Who has promoted it
The Democratic National Committee considered it in 2005, and FairVote has advocated for it as well.
It maintains many of the benefits of the Delaware Plan, potentially making the primary season longer (and therefore, potentially more informative) and giving more states the opportunity to have a say — all without leaving all the biggest states for last.
Once again, there’s the potential for some really inefficient campaigning. Imagine candidates having to hop from Alaska to Idaho to West Virginia to Rhode Island for the first round of caucuses. That could give better-financed candidates a leg up.
Also, it’s complicated — but compared with what? As Smith and Springer wrote, the American Plan “surely would be no more complicated than the current schedule.”