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Why New Hampshire, Iowa don’t make sense as opening rounds of presidential campaigns

Supporters wave signs and cheer ahead of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's campaign event in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. Photo by Amanda Sabga/UPI
Supporters wave signs and cheer ahead of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's campaign event in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. Photo by Amanda Sabga/UPI

Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Iowa and New Hampshire have long been the first states to hold presidential contests in election years.

But should they go first?

As a political scientist who studies Congress and elections, I know that this largely unquestioned influence of the two states raises serious concerns around fairness, diversity and political representation. Here they are.

They don't represent the country

White, non-Hispanic residents make up 84% and 89% of Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, compared with just 58% of the nation as a whole. Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the United States, particularly on the basis of race.

Supporters wait for former President Donald Trump to arrive and celebrates his win in the Iowa Caucus at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 15. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI
Supporters wait for former President Donald Trump to arrive and celebrates his win in the Iowa Caucus at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 15. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI

This matters because the presidency is a national office that affects everyone. Because of the boost in political momentum, media coverage and donations that a win in Iowa or New Hampshire can provide, their choices have a bigger effect on the race than most other states. Candidates recognize this and campaign accordingly: Nearly 80% of all Republican candidates' events through mid-January had taken place in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Staggering primaries isn't fair

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks during a campaign event for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. Photo by Amanda Sabga/UPI
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks during a campaign event for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. Photo by Amanda Sabga/UPI

American elections are carried out by a decentralized system. States and parties choose to hold primary elections at different times throughout an election year leading up to the party conventions.

Even if Iowa and New Hampshire were a perfect demographic mirror of the country, the process would still be unfair to states that don't vote early. In most modern cases, the primaries in both major parties have been all but wrapped up by April, leaving dozens of states that had not yet held primaries essentially without a voice in the process.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley greets the crowd during a campaign event in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. Photo by Amanda Sabga/UPI
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley greets the crowd during a campaign event in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. Photo by Amanda Sabga/UPI

In the 2020 Democratic primary, for example, Joe Biden's main rival -- Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- suspended his campaign before 26 states and territories had even held their contests.

Later states might have a kind of information advantage. For example, some states will likely have the benefit of seeing the outcomes of some of Donald Trump's many legal cases, while Iowa and New Hampshire voters will not.

Former President Donald Trump celebrates his win in the 2024 Iowa Caucus at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 15. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI
Former President Donald Trump celebrates his win in the 2024 Iowa Caucus at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 15. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI

But this advantage cuts both ways. Voters in later-voting states often don't even see the same slate of candidates on their ballot as Iowans do. Now that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suspended his campaign, most of the country's voters will never have gotten a chance to weigh in on him.

What are the alternatives? After Biden's win in the 2020 South Carolina primary, Democrats moved that state's 2024 primary to an earlier date.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks to supporters in West Des Moines, Iowa, on January 13. Now that he has suspended his campaign, most of the country’s voters will never have gotten a chance to weigh in on him. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks to supporters in West Des Moines, Iowa, on January 13. Now that he has suspended his campaign, most of the country’s voters will never have gotten a chance to weigh in on him. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI

Different, more diverse states could go first on the primary calendar. For example, frontloading bigger states like California, Illinois or Texas would certainly bring a broader swath of voters into the mix; but it also would make person-to-person campaigning more difficult. It's also politically fraught: Democrats moved South Carolina earlier in their own primaries in 2024, but it was perceived by many as a move to boost incumbent Biden, who lost Iowa and New Hampshire in the 2020 primaries, but won South Carolina.

A more substantial reform could create a single primary election day for all states -- how the United States does every other election in this country.

A supporter takes photo while waiting for former President Donald Trump to arrive at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 15. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI
A supporter takes photo while waiting for former President Donald Trump to arrive at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 15. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI

Small states would surely dislike this reform: By the current method of staggering elections, these states can shine individually, rather than get lost in the mix of larger states with more voters and delegates. Staggered primaries might also help voters get to know the candidates on a more intimate basis, and political science says voters think of politics in personal terms.

The Conversation
The Conversation

But the current cost -- essentially disenfranchising people in later-voting states -- might not be worth it.

Former President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Town Hall event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI
Former President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Town Hall event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 10. Photo by Tannen Maury/UPI

Charles R. Hunt is an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A supporter of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley waits for her to arrive at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, on January 14. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/UPI
A supporter of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley waits for her to arrive at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, on January 14. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/UPI

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.