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How Bloomberg’s Entry Shows What Order Primaries Should Be Held In

Letting small states go first allows for a more even playing field, writes Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

December 2, 2019
Monica Schipper/Getty

Every four years at roughly this point in the campaign season, the inevitable chorus of complaint begins about the unfair position of Iowa and New Hampshire at the head of presidential queue.

This time around, it was Julian Castro — the former cabinet secretary who did not make the cut for the November debate — who railed against the demographic makeup of these two opening-gun states. “Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people." Castro said recently. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”

From time to time, commentators also sing the praises of a national primary instead of a state-by-state competition in which candidates for president promise to visit all 99 Iowa counties, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (61 counties so far) did recently. News organizations inadvertently encourage the belief that there should be a 50-state primary by over-hyping their national polls as a window into Democratic voters. Left unmentioned is that a national poll is cheaper to produce than a series of state polls.

All this brings us to the belated entry of former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg into the Democratic presidential race with a $37-million splash. (That’s the unprecedented amount that Bloomberg spent last week alone on TV ads in roughly 100 media markets). Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also recently joined the presidential scrum. But since Patrick is not a billionaire self-funder, he tiptoed in without frenzied press coverage.

Bloomberg, who did not even file for the February 11 New Hampshire primary, intends to ignore the four small states that hold delegate contests in February. (Democratic Party rules also give a place of honor in February to the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary).

Instead, his strategy is to rule the airwaves in the 14 states, including California and Texas, that will be holding March 3 primaries. With Bloomberg worth more than $50 billion, no other candidate can possibly keep up. Even ordinary billionaire Tom Steyer is only spending about $1.2 million on TV spots per week.

As the Bloomberg example suggests, a national primary would reward candidates who can spend the most — and would offer virtually no chance for other candidates to build support. In contrast, under the current system, underdog contenders have a chance to break through in Iowa or New Hampshire and then ride the wave of news coverage to a competitive position in the March primaries. That is the fabled campaign storyline dating back to Jimmy Carter in 1976 — and it has sustained political dreamers ever since.

Personal campaigning, which is at a premium in the early states, will make no sense in March when candidates are trying to compete in 14 states at once, stretching from Portland, Maine, to San Diego. After the South Carolina primary on February 29, the surviving candidates (plus Bloomberg) will embark on a flyover campaign in which they will probably never be more than a 30-minute motorcade ride from a major airport.

The underlying reason for the clustering of 14 primaries on Super Tuesday is the weakness of the national political parties. As in prior presidential years, the DNC has used its limited powers to protect the four February delegate contests. The tradeoff is that beginning March 3, states are free to do what they like. This inevitably leads to clustering as state legislatures rush to make sure their votes matter in nominating a would-be president.

Admittedly, it is a bit baffling why small states like Utah and Oklahoma ever expected to see the candidates in the run-up to their March 3 primaries when there are so many delegates to be won elsewhere. But if there is a protracted fight for the Democratic nomination — which certainly seems like a plausible scenario — the surviving candidates will lavish their attention on later states like Wisconsin (April 7), Nebraska and West Virginia (May 12), and the wrap-up June 2 primaries (New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, Montana, and the District of Columbia).

The problem with this front-loaded calendar — beyond the advantage it gives self-funders like Bloomberg — is that it undercuts voter deliberation. When Democrats vote in the March 3 states, they may be overly influenced by the frenzied press coverage of whoever wins the South Carolina primary three days earlier.

None of this is to deny that Castro has a point about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Iowa and New Hampshire. But no small state is a perfect demographic microcosm of America. And in recent years both Iowa and New Hampshire have been swing states in the fall campaigns.

An elegant solution for 2024 and beyond would be simply to change the order of the early states. New Hampshire, which has been holding its opening-gun primary since 1916, deserves to be first. But then follow it with South Carolina, whose Democratic primary electorate is more than 50 percent African American. Move Iowa — and its emphasis on rural issues — to third place, and end with Nevada, whose population is more than one-quarter Latino.

But whatever the parties do in shaping the primary calendar next time, they should never abandon their commitment to the principle: small states go first. Because the alternative is to create a system that gives billionaires an unfair advantage.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.