Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses. Or maybe Bernie Sanders did, depending on how you do the counting.
Here’s who lost: Iowa, and not just because of the debacle the state’s Democrats had in reporting the results. Even before the caucus, many Democratic activists were unhappy that the presidential nomination process begins in a relatively small, largely rural state whose demographics are so unlike the rest of the country. More to the point, Iowa is 90% white at a time when the U.S. is becoming a lot less white and the Democratic Party in particular is relying much more on non-white voters. Some of the party’s most prominent non-white candidates — Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Kamala Harris — all dropped out before even a single vote was cast. That wasn’t a function of Iowa’s demographics but their own lack of support — but would they have been more inclined to stay in if the first states that voted were more diverse?
We don’t know who will be running in 2024 but the odds just went up that the first state won’t be Iowa. So which one should it be? Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed that Virginia should go first. Before we can get to that proposal, we need to look at the biggest complication in changing the schedule. New Hampshire is so intent on being the first to hold a primary that it’s passed a state law requiring that it go before any other state (caucus states like Iowa don’t count). Other states can move ahead of New Hampshire, but New Hampshire will just move its primary earlier and earlier. That highlights one of the key facts to keep in mind here: Primary dates are set by the states, not the individual parties. Just because Democrats may want another state to go first doesn’t mean it will if that state’s Republican legislature doesn’t want to pass a law setting an earlier date – and we still run into that New Hampshire problem. The Democratic activists unhappy with Iowa’s lack of diversity are just as unhappy with New Hampshire, too. It’s 93% white, so even more monochromatic than Iowa. Democrats have tried to address this problem by having Nevada (another caucus state, so one where the party can set the date) go third. It’s a state with a big Hispanic population — 29%. Still, that Iowa/New Hampshire problem remains. Let’s skip over the troublesome “New Hampshire must go first” law and go back to McAuliffe’s proposal that Virginia should vote first. Is Virginia a good choice? Sure! We’d love that. Virginia is definitely more diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire, although its demographics don’t quite make it representative of the nation as a whole. The Census Bureau tells us that as of 2019 the U.S. is 76.5% white, 13% African American — and 18% Hispanic (keep in mind that Hispanic heritage isn’t a race so that’s why the numbers don’t add up to 100%). Virginia is 62% white, 19% African American and 9% Hispanic. In making a claim to go first, Virginia’s biggest problem isn’t demographic, it’s geographic. Our biggest single metro area is now Northern Virginia. It’s hard for candidates to run against Washington if the biggest bloc of voters in the first primary state is in the Washington suburbs. It looks like an insider’s game. Sorry. As much as we’d like to see potential presidents forced to campaign for years in places like Big Stone Gap, that’s just not going to happen. So if not Iowa and not Virginia, who should go first? No state comes particularly close to matching the nation’s demographics overall. There is no “average” state, unfortunately.
Michigan comes closest. It’s 75% white and 14% African American, so almost right on the nose there. However, it’s only 5% Hispanic, so well below the national average.
Connecticut also comes close. It’s 67% white, so below the national average, but 10% African American and 16% Hispanic, so pretty close there.
Illinois is a contender. It’s only 61% white, so not representative there, but 14% African American and 17% Hispanic, so right on target.
The difficulty in finding a representative state is that the nation’s population is not evenly distributed, demographically speaking. California is 39% Hispanic, but in West Virginia, barely 1% of the population is. Mississippi is 38% African American but in Montana less than 1% of the population is. The nation is polarized both politically and demographically. It probably doesn’t help the nation’s civic health that the states that routinely vote Democratic are far more diverse than the states that routinely vote Republican: How can California ever understand Wyoming, or vice versa? That only makes it easier for supporters of one party to regard supporters of another as some kind of “other.” That’s a thought for another day, though. For now, back to our quest.
Are Connecticut, Illinois and Michigan good contenders for the first state? Connecticut has the fifth-highest median household incomes in the country ($73,781), a function of its proximity to New York City. Neither party wants it to look like some of the nation’s wealthiest people are selecting their nominee. So both Democrats and Republicans would surely ax Connecticut from consideration. The national median is $60,336. Illinois comes in almost at that — $61,229. Michigan comes in lower — $52,668. If you’re just looking at numbers for a representative state, that would give Illinois an advantage over Michigan. If you want to argue for Michigan, you cite Chicago. The Windy State makes Illinois’ population more urban than the nation as a whole. Officially the U.S. was almost 81% urban in the last census; Illinois was 88.5%, Michigan was 74.6%. Statistically, they’re about the same distance from the national average, but if you’re Michigan, you’d argue that you’re less dominated by a single metro area than Illinois.
Now for another question: Both Iowa and New Hampshire are small states. Iowa is the 32nd biggest state; New Hampshire the 42nd, so both are a lot closer to the bottom than the top. That makes them unrepresentative, but also makes them states where voters can really get to see the candidates up close. Their small size also makes it easier for unknown candidates. Illinois, though, is the sixth-biggest state in the country. Michigan the 10th biggest. Holding the first primary (or caucus) there would disadvantage lesser-known candidates, and give an advantage to candidates with more fund-raising prowess. How big a concern is that? If you went with a state in the middle of the population pack, you’d wind up with either Louisiana (25th) or Kentucky (26th), but neither has demographics that come anywhere close to matching the U.S. as a whole.
All these questions involve trade-offs. Which ones matter most?