By Indonesia Omega ’21
Where is the cultural center of the United States? Most people would answer Washington D.C., New York, or maybe California. According to Presidential primaries and caucuses, the correct answer is Iowa.
Since 1972, the Democratic Party has held its first caucuses in Iowa, and the Republican Party since 1976. According to a study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, voters who live in a state who vote first (like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina) have about twenty times more influence than someone in a later voting state. This is troubling, considering the Census Bureau reports that Iowa is more than 90% white. Iowa also lacks a city with a population over 250,000 people.
With a lack of diversity between urban, suburban, and rural areas, Iowa has little reason to wield such influence. So, why is this tiny, white, rural state the center of primaries and caucuses?
Let's start with the basics. What’s a caucus? To put it simply, it’s an 18th-century method in which local citizens get into groups behind candidates, and if a candidate doesn’t get at least 15% of voters, they are eliminated. This process occurs again: a certain number of delegates are assigned to each candidate using a complex algorithm that is primarily based upon their popularity in each community. The appeal to the caucus system is that there’s no “secret ballot” and that voters can meet and understand candidates with more depth and accuracy.
But Iowa doesn’t have many delegates in the game, to begin with; they have 41—only about 2% of delegates necessary to become a nominee (1,991 delegates). And yet, Iowa boasts a wildly disproportionate sway in our elections. Why? Because we just kind of agreed it does.
After the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party was looking to change things up a bit. Because Iowa’s electoral processes are historically deeply complicated, they had to start early. After Jimmy Carter won the Iowa Caucuses in 1976 and went on to win the presidency, the precedent was set.
Iowa is also a convenient target for candidates; candidates can easily comb through the small state to campaign. Statistics from the Wesleyan Media Project show candidates spent over $44 million on television presidential ads this year—a large sum to splurge on a single state—A single, tiny white state.
Things have been made easy for the candidates—those who wouldn’t stand a chance nationally could make a splash in Iowa and ride that ‘momentum’ to a nomination. The Iowa caucus system has turned the primary elections into those for the candidates, not for the people.
Iowa has taken America by the reigns, and we have just let it—even though it doesn’t come near representing the whole of America.
As USA Today’s Editorial Board points out, because Iowa “holds caucus meetings, not a primary election, its electorate is even less diverse because many poorer voters often do not have the free time to participate. In 2016, Iowa's caucus electorate was 91% non-Hispanic white. And that was the Democrats! The Republicans hit 97%.” To put that in perspective, the Census Bureau reports that America is only 60% non-Hispanic white. The problems in the system are immense, to say the least. And, because Iowa holds so much weight in the election, it’s able to turn small-state issues into national ones that candidates waste time on.
Iowa is a rural state with about 30 million acres of farmland which make up nearly 90% of the state; one of the state’s top priorities is farming. How seriously will its people take urban issues? How does that translate over to the citizens in cities like New York City? And, unemployment rates have always been a great national concern. But how seriously will Iowa take the issue when they have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country? As a New Yorker, how well do you feel represented by the voters of Iowa—a tiny, white rural state whose biggest issues include traffic cameras and agriculture? By people whose vote carries twenty times more weight than yours? Not at all? That’s what I thought.
On his segment on The Daily Show, Jordan Klepper said it’s like Iowa has called “shotgun on democracy.” It’s about time to finally switch things up. With help from some experts, WalletHub compared the likeness of the US with every state in the country by looking at five key factors and how they related to voting states in a study: “Electorate Representation Index: Which States Most Closely Resemble the U.S.?” Those key factors were sociodemographics, economy, education, religion, and public opinion, weighing each differently. Iowa ranked seventeenth. The state they found best represents the country is Illinois. And, evidently, it makes perfect sense; it’s one of the most diverse states in the country—it houses rural, suburban, and urban communities, as well as diversity across industries. Additionally, Illinois is one of the most religiously diverse states in the country.
So is Iowa diverse enough to go first? Short answer: No. Long answer: Heck no.
So what’s being done to fix this major flaw in our democracy? It’s no secret that our government can be rigid when it comes to change. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't push for progress. The better options are out there, but, in short terms, we choose to leave the fate of our country’s democracy in the hands of Iowa. This, however, is only because no one can completely agree on an exact change. We’re left with a system that puts more importance on what is easiest instead of what is best for the people of this country.
Candidates cannot continue to preach about racial inequalities in this country when they’re complacently participating in a system that silences the people of color for whom they claim to fight.
Starting the primaries and caucuses in a state that's 90% white and whose votes have twenty times the weight? This, more than anything, should make candidates riding their racial justice high horses furious.
If candidates won’t take the initiative themselves, the Democratic and Republican National Committees (DNC and RNC, respectively) should take on the issue. Iowa passed a law stating its caucuses must be held at least eight days before any other nominating contest. But speaking to Vox, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala suggests that both the RNC and DNC “impose penalties in order to pressure states to change their schedule.” They could penalize candidates who campaign in Iowa earlier in the race, discouraging them from campaigning there in the future, in turn forcing Iowa to reevaluate its laws. Or, they could penalize the states directly. In 2008, the RNC penalized five states for holding early primaries by refusing to accept half of their delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Now, why can’t both parties step up to the plate in the name of democracy? For too long, we’ve settled. We must come to terms with the seemingly inconsequential inequalities and disparities in our democracy that led to its greatest, most glaring and corrosive issues. But an issue like this cannot be swept aside any longer. I’m tired of settling. Now, we must demand change.