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Democrats should be Iowa stubborn
Peter Funt
Peter Funt

Democrats are wasting time by kicking the can down the campaign trail before deciding which states will go first in 2024’s presidential primaries. The 16 states, plus Puerto Rico, vying for early spots won’t know which get the prize positions — worth millions for local businesses — until after the November midterms.

Here’s my vote: Fix the formats that have made caucuses confusing, but keep the order as it was in 2020 — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. And here’s my pitch: In early states, demographics are important but logistics matter too. Iowa isn’t as diverse as Democrats would like, but it’s an ideal laboratory for testing candidates.

In 2019 and 2020 I spent weeks trudging around Iowa and Nevada covering the Democrats. Iowa’s population of about 3.2 million, its layout of easily accessible urban and rural settings, and its media mix provide a comfortable and affordable structure for early-stage presidential campaigns. Iowa is as well suited to retail politics as Arizona and Florida are to spring training baseball.

The biggest problem in Iowa wasn’t lack of diversity, it was the convoluted caucus process that went amok, confusing voters and confounding candidates. That’s been replaced for 2024 by a two-week voting period, with clear cut results to be released on Election Day. Nevada is going further, switching from caucusing to a conventional primary.

Understandably, the DNC wants to showcase diversity and punish election bungling, but obtaining lengthy applications from 17 locales seeking to go first is mostly theatrical. Some states, such as Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and Washington are just too big. Their media costs would be prohibitive for early candidates hoping to gain traction. Others, such as Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey are within the orbit of larger markets, making intimate campaigning unrealistic.

The DNC has stressed that it wants more diversity in early primary voting, which is why in 2008 it allowed Nevada, with 29% Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with 25% Black population, to move up on the calendar. By adding these states to Iowa and New Hampshire — each over 80% white — Democrats achieved a mix that provides both equality and utility.

But making further changes simply to send a message about diversity seems strategically unwise. In the 2020 general election 92% of Black votes went to Joe Biden. The Hispanic vote, although more divided, also went for Biden. No such support should be taken for granted, but if the point of primaries is to test candidates for the general election, then Democrats don’t need to do more testing among Blacks and Hispanics, they need to determine who would do best among the most significant swing group: white suburbanites.

Donald Trump won this group by 16% in 2016. Four years later he still carried the category, though Biden cut his margin to 4%. So which Democrat will do best in the white suburbs in 2024? Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders finished strong in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020, leaving Biden far behind. Sanders won Nevada, with twice as many votes as Biden. But in South Carolina Biden solidified support among Blacks that would propel him to the nomination and ultimately a November victory that was more about removing Trump than voter diversity.

According to Pew research data, white non-college voters represented 42% of the total electorate in 2020, and Trump won among this group with 65%. Again, wouldn’t a goal for Democrats in early primaries be to see which candidates could do best to correct this weakness? That answer might be found in Iowa, where the U.S. Census data show that 71% of people over 25 don’t have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Iowa’s lack of diversity didn’t hurt a Black newcomer, Barack Obama, who won the state’s 2008 caucus handily; a woman, Hillary Clinton, who won in 2016; nor an openly gay man, Pete Buttigieg in 2020. Indeed, all were helped by speaking with voters face-to-face, sometimes in small groups, as part of a grueling process that lasts for over a year.

It’s possible that the DNC will add a fifth state to 2024’s “early roster” — which is to say, before Super Tuesday. That could be one of three states that have good arguments for moving up, unless diversity is the metric, since Colorado’s population is 65% white, Michigan’s 73% and Minnesota’s 76%.

One of the best arguments I heard for Iowa’s early position came from former Maryland Rep. John Delaney who, like Klobuchar, campaigned in all 99 counties. “What happens here in Iowa,” he told me, “is a counterbalance to the social-media primary that doesn’t properly reflect the nation or the Democrats.”

Though he didn’t get many votes, Delaney remained firm in his view. “We need a place where candidates can be vetted on a personal level,” he said. “A state that’s not too big. Otherwise, cable television will determine the nominee.”

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker