Why Do Two of the Whitest States Vote First for Presidential Candidates?

Left to Right: Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren, 2020 Presidential Candidates. From Democracy Now! Visit democracynow.org
Left to Right: Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren, 2020 Presidential Candidates. From Democracy Now! Visit democracynow.org

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the presidential nomination process remains heavily weighted by two states that are among the whitest in the nation: Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates, in some cases, spend more than a year making frequent, extended campaign swings through both Iowa and New Hampshire, which, critics say, gives the concerns of the first states a disproportionate impact on the agenda for the entire race. During the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice earlier this month in South Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Warren refused to criticize the primary schedule, saying, “I’m just a player in the game on this one.”

Fellow 2020 presidential contender Julián Castro, however, has been a vocal critic of the existing system, noting that the demographics of the country have shifted significantly in the last several decades. “I don’t believe that forever we should be married to Iowa and New Hampshire going first,” he told MSNBC last week. We speak with Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, and Ian Millhiser, senior correspondent at Vox.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as the United States becomes increasingly diverse, and the Democratic Party even more so, the presidential nomination process remains heavily weighted by two states that are among the whitest in the nation: Iowa and New Hampshire.

AMY GOODMAN: During the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice earlier this month in South Carolina, I asked Senator Elizabeth Warren about the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren, just 30 seconds left. But speaking about racial injustice, do you think the order of the primary states should change? You have Iowa and New Hampshire —

ELIZABETH WARREN: Wait, let me make — let me just — before you finish, are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?

AMY GOODMAN: No, I’m asking about the order.

ELIZABETH WARREN: No, that is what Iowa and New Hampshire are all about.

AMY GOODMAN: But let me just ask. They’re two of the whitest states in the country, and then we move to South Carolina with a very significant population of people of color, and it means the candidates spend so much of their time catering to those first two states. Overall, do you think that should change?

ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I’m just a player in the game on this one. And I am delighted to be in South Carolina. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much.

MUSTAFA ALI: Thank you, Senator.

ELIZABETH WARREN: It’s good to see you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren’s reaction to the question echoes the Democratic Party’s stance on maintaining first-in-the-nation status for both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. In 1972, Iowa Democrats moved the caucus up to January 24th to give themselves extra time to process the results from all the precincts. That early date made the Iowa caucuses the nation’s first indicator of each candidate’s standing, attracted extraordinary media attention. The Iowa Democratic and Republican parties agreed to hold their caucuses early and on the same day, to maximize national press coverage. New Hampshire then cemented its hold as the first primary state, immediately following the Iowa caucuses. Candidates, in some cases, spend more than time — more than a year making frequent, extended campaign swings through Iowa and New Hampshire, which critics say gives the concerns of these first two states disproportionate impact on the agenda for the entire race.

MSNBC played my exchange with Warren for Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro, who pushed back on the status quo.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I actually believe that we do need to change the order of the states, because I don’t believe that we’re the same country we were in 1972. That’s when Iowa first held its caucus first. And by the time we have the next presidential election in 2024, it will have been more than 50 years since 1972. Our country has changed a lot in those 50 years. The Democratic Party has changed a lot.

What I really appreciate about Iowans and the folks in New Hampshire is that they take this process very seriously. They vet the candidates. They show up at town halls. They give people a good hearing. At the same time, demographically, it’s not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party. And I believe that other states should have their chance. So, yes, of course, we need to find other states. And that doesn’t mean that Iowa and New Hampshire can’t still play an important role.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Right.

JULIÁN CASTRO: But I don’t believe that forever we should be married to Iowa and New Hampshire going first.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In another interview, with CBS, Julián Castro said, quote, “We can’t say to black women, ‘Oh, thank you, you’re the ones powering our victories our victories in places like Alabama in 2018,’ and then turn around and start our nominating contests in two states that barely have any black people in them. That doesn’t make sense.” But Castro won’t be raising this issue at Wednesday’s debate in Atlanta; he didn’t make the cut for this debate.

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