Growing up in an immigrant household, I always had a general understanding of the United States—shoutout to my fifth grade map test—but I never really thought about any of the states in particular. It was only when I went to college that I began to learn. When someone said Idaho, it meant potatoes. Florida meant old people. Utah meant Mormons.
Suddenly election season hit, and within days I learned a brand new definition: Iowa meant primary elections. And yet, this definition came with a looming realization — the outcome of the primary elections is fundamentally informed by the decision of a single, primarily white and rural state.
Iowa owes this fame to its historical presidential nominating caucus, which kicks off the voting process for the primary election cycle. As a result, Iowa’s decision can be incredibly influential in deciding who is selected as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. This is a system that needs to change.
“[I don’t] feel particularly strongly about the fact that Iowa holds the first primary election,” Claire Kosewic, a sophomore biology major, said. “Especially when you think about it, it’s weird. But since I live in California, which is such a blue state, I don’t focus too much on Iowa.”
The precedent for Iowa voting first was established in 1972 when the Democratic Party decided to spread out the voting period and allow states with long and complex voting processes to start much earlier than the rest. Since then, candidates have focused a strong portion of their campaign efforts on Iowa, knowing that this preliminary winner will undoubtedly receive more support and recognition during the remainder of the primary election period. In fact, one of the candidates who took advantage of this situation was Barack Obama, who famously and cleverly campaigned to non-traditional caucus-goers in Iowa to gain a lead over Hillary Clinton.
However, this quirk in the presidential nomination process, though seemingly innocent, can have massive repercussions on the country’s ultimate victor. The reality of the situation is that Iowa is first and foremost white — it is approximately 85.3% white (not hispanic) compared to the national statistic of 60.4%, according to the U.S. Census. As a result, candidates with a primarily African American or Hispanic support bases are automatically at a disadvantage. Some have even argued that the reason why candidates of color such as Kamala Harris or Julián Castro dropped out of the race so early is due to the barrier posed by Iowa.
Aside from precedent and lack of public initiative, the main barrier to change is one simple question: if not Iowa, who? After all, a national primary does not appear to be much better. With such a broad region in which to campaign, a national primary would inevitably give an advantage to incumbents and better known (or better funded) candidates with the means to reach a wide audience. With this system, it is likely that the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate would have been Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama.
Recently, experts have begun to look into viable alternatives to both the Iowa primary system and a national primary. For instance, one option is a rotating primary, or one that allows states to decide when to hold their primary elections or caucuses so that Iowa is not always overrepresented.
On the other hand, one study proposes a unique solution: researchers used various indexes, including race, age, education and economic distribution, to determine which state is most representative of the entire country. The overall winner was Illinois, although Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania were not far behind.
Although it is impossible to find a perfect state, changing the first primary to Illinois—or to a small group of states that closely represent the entire nation—would address many of the issues with the Iowa caucus, while still retaining many of the inherent benefits of a staggered primary. Candidates who aren't as well known or have less financial support would still be able to focus on spreading their message to a small audience, but that audience would be as representative as possible of the ultimate population that the candidates are trying to win over.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee to promote fairness and equality in the electoral process. Reform to the order of state primaries is not only a feasible change, but one that is long overdue.
This is the opinion of Veronica Backer-Peral, a sophomore film and television production, history and computer science triple major from Pasadena, CA. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.