Time for Iowa, New Hampshire to let others go first

Feb 13, 2020

Here we go again. Tradition demands that we all turn our eyes to New Hampshire, where a few thousand flinty New Englanders get to tell the world who its most important person should be.

By the time you read this, the first votes will already have been counted at Dixville Notch, an unincorporated community of about a dozen people that votes at midnight, commanding the attention of the world’s news media the way Roman divination experts once studied newly spilled chicken guts.

The build-up has been going for a year, in which leading contenders have been engaging in immersive retail politics, flattering the egos of Granite State voters who won’t support a candidate who hasn’t interrupted them at a diner at least once. It’s the kind of campaigning that a candidate will not be able to do again in the long presidential race, when more votes are at stake and the contests come too quickly. It’s unlike anything the parties’ nominees will do in the general election campaign, and frankly, shaking hands in diners is not really like anything a president is required to do once in office.

So why does meal interruption play such a big role in deciding who gets to be president? An accident of history.

Like its partner in the first-in-the-nation mythology, New Hampshire’s primary happened to be scheduled early in the political year long before primaries played such a big role in the selection process. When the presidential selection rules changed in 1972, taking away power from party bosses and giving it to ordinary voters, both states were in a position to be early tests of a candidate’s appeal.

But Iowa and New Hampshire voters have taken on the undemocratic role once played by party bosses, robbing the vast majority of ordinary voters of their say. Most contenders never get past the first two contests, so these two small, overwhelmingly white states shape the race even though they are not representative of the nation as a whole.

The complete meltdown of vote counting in Iowa has overshadowed the conversation that is long overdue. Even if the party’s election results app had worked perfectly, the Iowa caucuses should not have such outsize influence on the process, and neither should New Hampshire’s primary. And even if the New Hampshire vote count goes without a hitch, this ought to be the last time that the presidential primary process has to pass through the eye of the Dixville Notch needle.

There are a number of alternative primary schemes, including rotating regional primaries, or a succession of primaries that group states by size, which would get more people engaged in the process.

We don’t need a constitutional amendment to make these changes — we just need a belief that we are capable of doing better. It’s incumbent on the members of both major parties to insist that 2020 is the last hurrah for Iowa and New Hampshire.

Reprinted by permission from the Portland Press Herald

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