Opinion | How Democrats Can Pick a Better Presidential Nominee

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Nearly two years ago, an app almost destroyed democracy — or, at least, the Democratic Party’s dignity. That day, February 3, 2020, was the day of the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses. Because of the complex nature of caucuses, which require counting first votes, final votes and state delegate equivalents, it took over three weeks for the state’s election app to finally declare a winner. Buttigieg declared, “Iowa, you have shocked the nation,” when he claimed a premature (though ultimately justified) victory.

The Iowa caucuses did in fact shock the nation that night; though, not in a way anyone can defend as a model of democracy.

Most Democrats think the party needs to change how they pick their presidential nominee, and after the 2020 debacle in Iowa, they appeared finally prepared to do it. There are several reasons. Party members know that the Iowa caucuses and first official primary in New Hampshire have become poor bellwethers, and yet those early contests continue to draw the lion’s share of attention and resources.

Voters in the largely white and rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire make up one component of the Democratic electorate, but only one. And their preferences are increasingly divergent from the more diverse coalition that delivers the party electoral victories. In 2020, Joe Biden didn’t emerge from the pack until the South Carolina primary, and he didn’t take the lead in the Democratic race until Super Tuesday, about six weeks after finishing a disappointing fourth in the Iowa caucuses. And despite the eye-popping $33 million invested in the New Hampshire primary in 2020, it has not voted for the eventual Democratic nominee since 2004.

So here’s an idea that would go a long way towards solving Democrats’ problems with the schedule without completely upsetting the apple cart: Hold the first four presidential primary contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — on the same day.

In addition to easing the demographic mismatch between the early states’ populations and the Democratic electorate, this plan would require Iowa to finally ditch its caucus system. But it’s time. Even when they work, caucuses are problematic and decrease voter turnout. That’s because they require voters to come to a certain place at a certain time and publicly declare their vote in a process that could take hours. In fact, in 2016, the highest turnout caucus had lower voter turnout than the lowest turnout primary. Two states — Nebraska and Washington — held caucuses that awarded 100 percent of the states’ delegates while the state government held “beauty contest” primaries that awarded 0 percent of the delegates — and more voters participated in the latter even though the results didn’t count. Clearly, voters don’t like caucuses.

Thankfully, caucus reform has swept the nation since 2016. That year, 14 states held caucuses. With Nevada recently approving a switch to a primary, the only caucus left by 2024 could be Iowa. Polling in Iowa in 2020 showed most Iowa Democrats wanted to switch from a caucus to primary.

Of course, there will be some resistance to changing the primary calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire cherish their favored-child status and will fight tooth-and-nail to keep it.

But Democrats should not shy away from doing what is best for democracy. The party already has a great amount of control over the timing of the Iowa and South Carolina contests. And the Nevada state government would certainly jump at any chance to be among the first and is already picking that fight with New Hampshire.

The biggest obstacle will be the New Hampshire state government, which conducts a joint primary for both parties on the same day and has a state law that requires it to occur seven days before any similar election (the reason Iowa can go before New Hampshire is the latter views a caucus as inferior to a primary). In the short term, New Hampshire state officials could dash this vision for reform. But there’s good reason to think this change could be better even for New Hampshire.

Making the early primary process more representative does not have to be a zero-sum game. It does not require a rejection of longtime Iowa and New Hampshire traditions. But Democrats have a multiracial coalition, and it’s both fair and necessary that the eventual nominee draw support from more corners of that big tent. To win a general election, Democrats must earn the votes of white, Black, Latino, Asian, pro-union, pro-business, liberal, moderate, activist and pragmatist Americans alike. The party’s candidate for our country’s highest office should have to make their case to all these constituencies up front, leaving no one as an afterthought. Forcing candidates to address a broader spectrum of voters from the very start of the primary season could make the results from the early states together far more powerful than they currently are individually.

By switching Iowa from a caucus to a primary and holding the first four primaries on the same day, Democrats will allow Iowa and New Hampshire to continue their first-in-the-nation traditions while also making the results of those ballots more meaningful. By sharing the spotlight they will, in short, become better bellwethers than they are now.

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