During the 1976 presidential election, Jimmy Carter was a little-known governor from Georgia with faint name recognition who was a long shot to capture the Democratic nomination. Lacking the charm of Bill Clinton, the smooth-operator status of Barack Obama and the Hollywood pizazz of Ronald Reagan—who he would eventually beat in that 1976 general election—Carter did the best thing an underdog could do: camp out in the first primary state months in advance and pray that the locals would vote for him because he pretty much established residency there.
Carter shocked the political establishment with his Iowa caucuses win and the momentum would help burn his name into the minds of voters in primary states to follow. It was a brilliant strategy because other candidates in future primaries started setting up shop early in the state to wrestle for political advantage. The problem is that Iowa, one of the whitest states in the union with one of the fewest delegate tallies, has defined the fate of future presidential primaries since.
Media coverage and campaign strategies are fine-tuned to acquiesce to “the heartland” and “Middle America,” where the “values” voters supposedly live. It’s the type of structure that makes people like upstart South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg viable, even as he continues to poll at zero percent with black voters who make up 25 percent of the primary electorate. Iowa—and by extension, New Hampshire, another lily-white state and scene of the second primary—makes it possible to turn what was initially a gender and ethnically diverse field of candidates into a mayonnaise tsunami, as one of my colleagues described it.
Basically, Iowa allows white men to shoot their shot when they really shouldn’t even think about trying.
But it does something else far worse: kill the campaigns of non-white candidates. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were two of the most resume-ready candidates for president in recent memory and their melanin was icing on the cake. However, neither of them were able to sustain their candidacies, which depended on prioritizing the black voters who were supposed to buoy their campaigns. Julián Castro, a Latino and former Housing and Urban Development secretary who championed racial justice more than any other person on the trail, dropped out in December. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out before people could learn to pronounce her name properly.
“Candidates of color have an increased hurdle to connect with voters who are more willing to vote for a white male candidate at first glance,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “Kennedy and Obama are the only two non-WASP presidents in our nation’s history; that is not a coincidence. Fun fact, they are also the only two presidents whose names end in a vowel. For those of us who study immigrant politics, that fact is not lost on us either. This country is one of the few democracies who has never had a female president. Again, not a coincidence.”
Iowa began holding its caucuses first in 1972 and has benefitted from it since—especially at the bank. Des Moines, the capital, is expecting to earn more than $11 million in tourism dollars alone; from an advertising standpoint, the city has earned close to $230 million since January 2019. Individual Democratic campaigns have spent at least $45 million on ads in the state. For a comparison to 2016, $46.3 million was spent by both parties in the Hawkeye State. None of this includes the millions of dollars spent on lodging, food, flights and rental space across the state. Iowa, which holds its caucuses on Monday, is not only reaping the benefits of being first, it is also raking in big bucks in the process.
One has to wonder if any of these candidates would still be in the race if, say, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi were the first primary states, where conversations around reproductive rights, infant mortality rates and combating racism would be at the top of black voters’ minds. Invariably, candidates would have to center black issues in the early stages of their campaigns and national media would have to shape coverage around these issues because it’s simply too many negroes in those states not to.
“I think you’re talking about a very different conversation about what electability looks like,” said Anoa Changa, an Atlanta-based political activist and writer. “We’re no longer measuring electability on the ability to peel off white, moderate Republicans. We’re talking about what it means to build multi-racial populous support across the board, ala Stacey Abrams, ala Andrew Gillum. We just saw former 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Mike Epps do amazing work in the face of sabotage in Mississippi.
“So we have the blueprint for what it looks like to really galvanize and engage people in these states that are more reflective of the entire country than an Iowa or a New Hampshire. So we would have the media grappling with how to challenge their own narrative of what electability is and what it takes to be a winning candidate. We would not have a candidate on the eve of a caucus talking about being from the heartland.”
Even black people in Iowa have argued that the state carries too much weight. For all of the media hype the state gets, Lisa Covington, a black Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa and who works with black youths in Iowa, told me that racism was hardly covered at all. Indeed, the state may be 90 percent white, but there are pockets of black people in smaller towns facing racism regularly, she said. Coralville City, outside of Iowa City, for example, is 12 percent black. But Covington says she sees little effort from white people to discuss the racism black people experience in the state.
“A lot of times, what happens in Iowa when race is discussed, people think being nice is enough to overcome systematic and institutional discrimination and racism. And it’s not,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh. I’m a good person.’ In Iowa City in particular, my experience is that there are a lot of white folks who are well-meaning, well-intentioned who think they are liberal, but you’re still clutching your purse when you see me walk across the street. People see that I’m black. They don’t see a Ph.D. student.”
Castro was the only candidate brave enough to challenge Iowa and New Hampshire’s outsize influence on the primary, saying, “It doesn’t make any sense. I believe, as many Iowans themselves do, that it’s time that our presidential nominating process reflects our nation’s and our party’s diversity. That’s just the truth.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Though individual states set the dates for primaries, the Democratic National Committee has ultimate control over which states’ votes count first. Indeed, the DNC has told states—Michigan and Florida in 2008 comes to mind—that have flouted its rules that the states’ delegates would risk not being counted at the convention. The party leadership has heard these concerns but are doing little to address them. (The DNC did not respond to a request for comment.) That doesn’t mean the DNC won’t get a grip on itself and do the right thing eventually. But first, we have to deal with the real reason why Iowa is being treated like the Golden Child of the Democratic primary process.
“Iowa is considered ‘real America’ by far too many journalists and politicians where heartland, Middle America and rural are all proxies for whiteness and centering white political priorities,” Greer said. “And then New Hampshire just one week later presents a lopsided account of the needs, wants, and values of the entire party.”