As part one of this series explains, the U.S. primary and caucus system is rather complicated. In fact, many claim that the system’s complexity is unnecessary and that various of its features undermine the democratic process. 

The (Undue) Influence of Iowa and New Hampshire

One point of contention is the undue influence of the early states, in particular Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first votes are held. Indeed, historically, eventual nominees have to do well either in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Of the last 16 (non-incumbent) presidential candidates nominated by the Democrats and Republicans, only two, George McGovern and Bill Clinton, won their party nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire. Further, even George McGovern and Bill Clinton placed second in at least one of the two states. 

Why are these states so important? In essence, it comes down to the “momentum effect” that winning one or both of these states can generate. 

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is a prime example of this momentum effect. Before he won Iowa, Obama and Hillary Clinton were polling at similar numbers in South Carolina. After winning Iowa, Obama received a substantial lead over Clinton in South Carolina, re-energizing his campaign and arguably securing his nomination. Moreover, other candidates, most recently Rudy Giuliani, have shown that even leads in large states can disappear after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

In other words, candidates rely heavily on Iowa and New Hampshire to signal the legitimacy of their campaign. According to CNN, the momentum effect will be particularly important in 2020 where the field of nominees is crowded and the competitions in these states will, for the first time in this election cycle, signal clear frontrunners.

This significant influence of Iowa and New Hampshire is considered undemocratic by some given that both states are geographically small and largely white. In other words, they are unrepresentative of the U.S. population as a whole. In the face of growing diversity and the disenfranchisement of minorities, this factor is seen by many as increasingly problematic.  

The Exclusionary Nature of Caucuses

Critics of the primary system also question the influence of Iowa, in particular, given that it holds caucuses – as system many perceive as undemocratic – rather than a primary.

Caucuses have a far lower turnout than primaries due to the fact that they require a larger time commitment from voters than primaries do and take place in the evenings. Moreover, research suggests that those who do show up to caucuses tend toward the ideological fringe,” making the nomination of an “extreme” candidate more likely (this is also the case, however for closed primaries).

More disconcertingly, however, caucus attendees also tend to be wealthy, older, and white. After all, caucus rules, and the time commitment involved, exclude, for example, shift-workers and single parents.

In an effort to address these concerns, the Democratic Party has encouraged caucus states to switch to primaries. For the 2020 election Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Washington have followed suit. After Iowa’s plan to “digitalize” its caucuses was rejected due to hacking concerns, the state will offer various “satellite” caucuses. This innovation will allow voters to participate in caucuses with extended hours held at locations other than their assigned precinct location, thereby increasing accessibility. 

Too Much Power to the People? 

On a larger scale, changes to the 2020 Democratic National Convention are also aimed at increasing the democratic legitimacy of the process. As such, so-called “superdelegates”, will, for the first time, be barred from voting in the first ballot at the Convention.

This is significant, as superdelegates can vote for whichever candidate they prefer, rather than, like pledged delegates, having to vote for the candidate determined by the primaries and caucuses.

In recent years, this influence of superdelegates, who are generally party grandees, has been criticized for potentially superseding the voice of voters, hence rendering the process undemocratic. Consequently, the DNC announced the aforementioned changes to correct this perceived democratic deficit. 

Yet, this change relies on the assumption that more power to the people is a good thing. Some observers reject this assertion. For example, in their article “Too Much Democracy Is Bad for Democracy” Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja claim that the input of party officials is necessary to ensure that presidential nominees are viable candidates.

They explain that previously, even with the rise in importance of the primary and caucus system, “professional gatekeeping” survived – candidates had to prove their legitimacy to party officials and insiders in order to “win influential endorsements, command media attention, appeal to multiple constituencies, attract top campaign talent and raise money.”

As a result, most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive accomplishments, commanding the skills and knowledge to lead a successful presidency. 

Rauch and La Raja lament that this party influence has waned over the years. They state that the electorate no longer respects the establishments, viewing endorsements by its members as a negative rather than positive factor when deciding on a candidate. Accordingly, the primary system has become “vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures, and activists.” This is compounded by the fact that several studies indicate that voters tend to be uninformed.

Overall, Rauch and La Raja thus argue that the current primary system favours “ideological activists” at the expense of “rank-and-file voters,” thereby harming democracy. As such, Rauch and La Raja come to the conclusion that professionals must be given a greater say in the nomination process, for example, by strengthening the role of superdelegates in the Democratic nomination process – the very opposite of what the DNC has determined as the best course of action. 

Overall, it is true that recent years have seen the rise of “unconventional” candidates. Yet, it cannot be forgotten that the popularity of these unconventional candidates reflects an increasing dissatisfaction with the major U.S. parties that is by no means explained simply by voter “ignorance.” 

Further, it is also true that the undue influence of small, homogenous states, as well as the exclusionary nature of caucuses, has become increasingly problematic. Yet these various critiques simply point to the simple fact that all (political) decisions involve a trade-off. The decisions that determined the rules of the current primary system were simply influenced by a certain set of preferences, and while these preferences may be shifting, undoing the “evils” of the system won’t be an easy process. 

For example, moving the “early states” to a later time in the calendar would simply favour the states that would take their place. That is, some people’s votes would still be worth more than others. Similarly, eliminating, rather than democratizing, caucuses, would undermine state independence and agency, and disenfranchise citizens who pride themselves in caucus involvement.

Finally, as we have seen, decreasing the power of party elites increases the influence of individual voters, perhaps at the cost of preferrable candidates. Yet, increasing the power of party elites disenfranchises voters. 

Any change to the system will almost inevitably favour one “type” of candidate over another, or advantage certain states while disadvantaging others. And who is to say which candidates or states should be given preferential treatment?  

Whether we abolish, reform, or continue to uphold the current primary system, the nomination process will never be perfect, or even near-perfect. Nonetheless, the system could undoubtedly be “better”, and on-going reforms indicate that the deficiencies of the system are being taken seriously. 

As such, all we can do, for the time being, is to watch the caucuses and primaries over the following months with the system’s implicit biases in mind. Moreover, if the past is any indication, any major concerns that arise this election will be likely to influence the rules of the next – thereby contributing to the incremental progress towards a reformed, and hopefully “better”, nomination system.

Edited by Evelyne Goulet.

This article is part of a series on the 2020 United States elections. To see more analysis and opinion on the American presidential and congressional elections, click here

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Lauren Hill.