It’s completely unfair to the other 48 states, but Iowa and New Hampshire always get to pick first in the presidential primary process.
It’s especially unfair since these two states are not representative of the United States. Like, at all.
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They both have small populations that are more than 90% white – whereas the US overall is less than 80% white.
But no single US state is representative of the country as a whole. And you gotta start somewhere.
Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t gain prominence in the primary process until after chaos tainted the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Inside the convention hall, delegates picked Hubert Humphrey as their nominee that year even though he didn’t run in the primary. Outside, protesters rose up in anger against the Vietnam War and the political system.
The next election primary voters got more say in the nomination process. New Hampshire leaders had the foresight to intentionally hold the first primary on the calendar starting in the 1920s. Iowa ended up being the first caucus by accident – there were no hotel rooms available for the regularly scheduled state party convention so Democratic leaders moved the caucuses up to comply with a state law.
Both states have guarded their first-in-the-nation status with laws ever since.
They’re now followed by South Carolina, where black voters play a key role, and Nevada, where Latino voters are extremely important. So the North, Midwest, South and West each have a state in the first four.
One argument in favor of New Hampshire and Iowa’s status is that the small number of voters in those states get up close and personal with candidates to really kick the tires.
But that also means candidates have to speak to the interests of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire before the rest of the country. Ethanol is really important to Iowa, for instance, so it’s no surprise that the US has ended up subsidizing ethanol. It’s a very different primary than if, say, the Democrats in New York and California started narrowing the field.
Even though they’re first, Iowa and New Hampshire usually end up being more important for gaining momentum than for gaining delegate votes. In fact, Iowa and New Hampshire don’t always pick the winner of the primary. Donald Trump didn’t win Iowa in 2016. And Hillary Clinton didn’t win New Hampshire.
But most recent candidates win one or the other. Except Bill Clinton. He didn’t win Iowa or New Hampshire when he first ran in 1992, but he became President anyway.