RNC Chair suggests Iowa and New Hampshire Might Not Be First Next Time

Posted: September 30, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

By David Redlawsk, Harkin Institute Mabry Fellow

Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling


And so it begins. The quadrennial effort to change the status quo where Iowa leads the presidential nomination process with the caucuses, followed by New Hampshire’s primary, is underway. And like all efforts before it, this one seems unlikely to succeed.

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus recently commented that as the planning begins for 2020, the early “carve-out” states are not sacred cows, as he put it. Instead, Priebus seems to suggest that a more regional or even national approach might be considered.

Since 1976, the Iowa Republican and Democratic parties have zealously guarded their leadoff slot, even to the extent of writing it into state law, which requires that Iowa be the first event. New Hampshire also requires that it be first, but since Iowa does not hold a primary, that state has been content to be the first primary state. Every four years someone, or a number of someones, threatens the status of these two states; through all of it Iowa and New Hampshire’s positions have been maintained. And for good reason.

As my colleagues and I describe in Why Iowa?, a regional or national primary is no panacea and would probably bring a different set of problems and its own unintended consequences. Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as the more recent carve-out states of South Carolina and, to a lesser extent, Nevada, require a kind of retail politics that we think makes candidates better. Instead of just sound-bites, airport tarmac speeches, and massive TV ad campaigns, candidates today must meet actual voters, answer questions, and explain themselves. In a regional, and even more so in a national, primary, candidates would almost never get out of the campaign bubble and never be forced to respond to voters. And trust me, responding to the media does not take the place of talking to voters. Grassroots campaigns allows voters to better check candidate quality than a TV based campaign, where there is no direct feedback loop from meeting voters in small groups. One of the greatest strengths of Iowa and New Hampshire is that it is possible for candidates to meet and shake the hands of a large percentage of those who will actually be supporting them at the polls. Voters learn from this and candidates do, too.

And to solve what problem? That these early states are somehow too influential? Of course they matter, because they go first. And agreed, a regional or national approach would limit their influence, but it would also limit the influence of all voters as candidates focus on media, as well as bias the process toward the very large, vote-rich states, leaving most states out in the cold. Candidates who might have something to offer, but haven’t spent years building up superpacs and huge war chests, would have less than no opportunity to be heard in an ad-driven large-scale campaign. We would trade one set of concerns for another, and for an untested new system with few obvious benefits.

There is a place for large-scale campaigns, of course, and we do get something akin to them during so-called “Super Tuesdays,” when a number of states bunch up on a particular primary date. The ability of candidates to personally campaign in front of a large share of the voters is limited, but the TV ads and media campaigns are not.

At the same time, there may be some value to limiting the lengthy sequential nature of the process. In Why Iowa? we proposed a hybrid – what we call a “caucus window/national primary” system. The process would start with a caucus window running for several weeks, during which no primaries would be held, but any small state that wanted to hold a caucus could. These caucuses would most likely get media attention as the first tests of candidate organizing ability and would presumably maintain the grassroots politics benefits of the current system. The results would be informative to voters; in essence the caucuses would be an initial vetting of the candidates.

Once that window closes, all states would hold simultaneous primaries – a national primary – at which delegates would be elected. Many details (such as delegate allocation and what to do if no one wins a majority) would need to be worked out, but the basic idea (expanded on in more detail in Why Iowa?) would preserve the benefits of the grassroots caucus process while allowing more voters in more states to have a real say in what happens.


But what about the chances of things actually changing, either in the direction we suggest or along the lines of the RNC Chairman’s musings? I would suggest the odds are Slim to None, and Slim has left the room (as we used to say back home). The simple reason is that the national parties actually have relatively little direct control over when primaries and caucuses are held. Sure, there are national rules, and supposedly sanctions can be applied, but the evidence so far is that rules and sanctions have very limited effects. But it is state parties – and in many cases state legislatures – that set the actual dates, and they do so based on their own calculations.

Second, and maybe more importantly, one Bill Gardner pretty much outweighs everyone else combined. Gardner is New Hampshire’s Secretary of State, and under state law he has the absolute power to set the date of the NH primary. He has made it clear, year after year, that NH will hold the first primary whenever it has to be held. And Iowa, which has a similar state law requiring the caucuses to be the first non-primary event, has not been shy to move its date either. Thus in 2008 and again in 2012, the Iowa caucuses were on January 3.

It seems likely that no matter what rules the RNC (and presumably the Democrats as well) establish about the order of nominating events, dislodging Iowa and New Hampshire will take more than the musings of the RNC Chair or even votes of the entire Republican National Committee. Of course, neither state cares all that much what comes after them; as long as the rules allow a carve-out for them, they will be happy. And if the rules don’t, they will probably violate the rules and go first anyway.