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Iowa caucuses: Should a more diverse state vote first?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

Ever since the major candidates announced they were joining the race for the Democratic presidential nomination a year ago, all eyes have been on Iowa. After 12 months of exhaustive news coverage, countless polls, contentious debates and passionate speeches, the actual voting will finally kick off with the Iowa caucuses on Monday.

Iowa has been the first state to vote every four years since 1972. Though a relatively small number of delegates are handed out, the state is seen as a pivotal point in the race. A strong showing can help a candidate build momentum for states down the road. A disappointing result can be a death blow to a campaign. 

As a result, campaigns pour an outsize amount of their resources into the Hawkeye State. The candidates have combined to hold more than 1,000 campaign events and have spent at least $45 million on ads in Iowa this election cycle. 

Why there’s debate

Complaints about Iowa’s oversize influence come up during every election cycle but may have become more pointed this time as Democrats place increased emphasis on diversity. The most common critique is that Iowa is not representative of the nation as a whole. The state is overwhelmingly white compared with the rest of the country. Because of Iowa’s limited population, a relatively small number of people are involved in such a crucial decision. Only 171,000 people participated in the 2016 Democratic caucuses. In comparison, California’s primary that year had more than 5 million votes cast.

These factors, some argue, give an unfair amount of influence to a small number of white rural voters at the expense of urban voters in more diverse states. New Hampshire, the second state to vote, receives similar criticism. Iowa’s choice to vote through a complex caucus process is also a point of contention. 

Defenders of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status say the rural nature of the state forces candidates to campaign on the ground and interact with voters in person. This limits the influence of money in the race and gives lesser-known candidates a chance to make their mark, they say. Recent Iowa wins by a black man and a woman — Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — indicate that the state’s voters aren’t as behind the times as some critics may claim. 

What’s next

A number of alternatives have been proposed to alter the primary schedule, including having the honor rotate among states and holding a national primary in which every state votes at once. But momentum for change among the DNC leadership appears to be limited.

For 2020 at least, Iowa will remain first in line. New Hampshire votes eight days later. Nevada and South Carolina will hold their primaries by the end of February. On March 3, states representing more than a third of the U.S. population will vote. 



Campaigning in Iowa forces candidates to meet voters face-to-face

“A campaign with limited resources, invested in skillful boots-on-the ground workers and volunteers, can do as well — or better — than well-heeled media-centered approaches, assuring that, in most years, most candidates will test-drive their messages in front of in-person live gatherings before they are catapulted into the more populated media-saturated larger states.” — James C. Larew, Iowa City Press-Citizen

Iowa voters ensure that the candidates remain civil

“Iowans (like Minnesotans) like to think of themselves as unusually civil and friendly, and tend to frown on public displays of nastiness. So there’s a pretty stiff resistance to overtly negative campaigning.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Iowa’s impact on the race is overrated

“Iowa is just a testing ground for candidates, their style, their message, their hidden vulnerabilities, their policy positions and, yes, their ability to connect with voters in focus groups and polls. … Iowa does not pick the American candidate for president. We merely give space for many ‘wanna-be’ contenders to test their viability.” — Steffen Schmidt, Des Moines Register

Any state that voted first would have problems

“As explained by NPR, there will likely always be a lack of consensus regarding Iowa’s placement, but this disagreement could occur with almost any state.” — Olivia Sally, Teen Vogue

There are ways to temper Iowa’s influence while still having it go first

“The DNC’s schedule changes have changed the way the candidates have campaigned, and they have increased the influence that nonwhite voters outside of Iowa have on the presidential nominating process. We can debate whether the current arrangement strikes the right balance, but we shouldn’t act as if there isn’t any balance at all.” — Bill Scher, Politico


Iowa’s population is not representative of the rest of the country

“These are two of the whitest states in America. Nationwide, 60% of the populace is white. In New Hampshire, it’s 90%. In Iowa, it’s 85%. They rank fourth and sixth among the states. ...

Growth in Iowa and New Hampshire is anemic, too. By income, age distribution, education — pick a metric — these aren’t microcosms of America.” — Todd J. Gillman, Dallas Morning News

Too few people participate

“Ultimately, a small sliver of Iowa’s population participates in the caucuses. About 171,000 Democratic caucus-goers participated in 2016, just 15.7 percent of the overall population. … When it’s over, millions of campaign dollars and hours spent campaigning in Iowa will all be spent to win the hearts of a small number of American voters.” — Tara Golshan and Ella Nilsen, Vox

Iowa is becoming increasingly unfit for the Democratic agenda

“In Iowa, fretting about the caucuses is a quadrennial tradition among Democratic and Republican officials alike. But at a time when leading Democrats have made the fight for ballot access, voting rights and diverse representation core principles, their marquee presidential contest offers none of those elements.” — Sydney Ember and Reid J. Epstein, New York Times

No single state should be first

“The good people of the Hawkeye State shouldn’t receive all this attention and pandering they currently get every four years. Not because they’re particularly unworthy but because no one state deserves it.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

Iowa’s prominence devalues minority voters

“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.” — Ben Jackson, Boston Globe

Iowa’s influence leads to bad policies that pander to rural voters

“The idea of the informed and engaged Iowa voter that is vetting candidates diligently for the rest of the nation is a myth perpetuated by the media. And its presence as the first state helps enshrine terrible policy, such as ethanol subsidies.” — Philip Klein, Washington Examiner

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