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In the News

2024 race for the White House

Mike McCartney

2nd December 2022

Democrats to demote Iowa from first-in-the-nation status?

It has been widely reported that the Democratic Party are to hold a number of meetings this week to decide on the order in which states vote in the selection process for their 2024 nominee.

For instance, in the New York Times this morning it was said that President Biden wants to promote South Carolina to the first spot, with Michigan in fifth. Supposedly this is in order to have a more diverse voting demographic exert more influence early in the process and reduce the disproportionate influence of Iowa.

This would mitigate against one of the arguments against the primary process. A reminder of the main arguments...

Presidential primaries: the case for

  1. Primaries are democratic and post 1968 have opened up selection to party supporters rather than party elders behind closed doors, in smoke filled rooms, as they did with Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
  2. Iowa and New Hampshire have relatively small populations therefore this gives voters the opportunity to meet candidates face to face and indulge in some old fashioned “retail politics”, a process that would not be possible if one of the bigger states was first or if there was a clutch of states voting on the same day.
  3. Primaries are expensive but when we bear in mind that McDonalds spend well over half a billion dollars per year on advertising in the USA then the figures seem much more reasonable.
  4. Those candidates deterred from entering the race due to inability to raise necessary funding most likely do not have what it takes. There is a strong argument to suggest that supporters are looking to back a winner, hence the flow of funding that went to the likes of Clinton, GW Bush, etc.
  5. Money does not necessarily buy success anyway. Most egregiously, Steve Forbes in 2000 spent $40m and failed to win a single state.
  6. Primary campaigns prepare candidates for the general election battle - eg the Hillary v Obama battle arguably sharpened up the Obama campaign and made him as the eventual Democrat nominee more battle hardened.
  7. Primaries can project relatively unknown candidates onto the national stage: Jimmy Carter, it is said, started in Iowa with just a suitcase.
  8. Complaints about low turnout are exaggerated, eg turnout in the 2008 campaign cycle hit record levels, driven by the competitive nature of the Democrat campaign.

Presidential primaries: the case against

  1. Primary voters are not politically representative of the voting population and candidates are forced to court polar opposites of the political spectrum, thus potentially harming their attempt to attract centrist voters post-convention.
  2. The need to campaign for the primaries makes the race for the presidency into a marathon, thus inducing voter fatigue and depressing voter turnout.
  3. The traditionally early state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the wider US voting public. Iowa and NH are rural, conservative, and above average wealth.Therefore the concerns of voters in these states is out of alignment with the rest if the union, e.g. Iowa’s obsession with ethanol subsidies!
  4. Performance in early contests are unreliable indicators of who will secure the presidency, e.g. Bush defeated Reagan in 1980 in Iowa, and thus questions about their prominent place in the calendar remain.
  5. States often squabble about when their primary can be held, and this detracts from the substance of the issues, with the media turning its attention to the battle for state prominence rather than policy analysis.
  6. Contests can be bitter and divisive, e.g. McCain v. Bush 2000. Hardly the best springboard for a successful GE campaign.
  7. Many apparently well qualified candidates drop out due to their inability to raise pots of cash, e.g. Libby Dole in October 1999.
  8. The need for money. And lots of it. Primaries are enormously expensive. The need to campaign early, criss-crossing the US, hire campaign teams, and run expensive adverts necessitates huge funds.
  9. Turnout rates are usually low, with the examples like the 2008 contest being the exception due to a confluence of factors. More common figures are those like the Democrat primary in Connecticut in 2004, for example, attracted just 5% of voters.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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