Early-Voting States Aren’t a Problem for Democrats

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

With the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, get ready for another round of complaints about how Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the Democratic Party and warp the process by going first and second. After all, they are dominated by white voters in a party in which Black and Latino voters are major constituencies. So one last reminder for this cycle that those complaints are, while not entirely wrong, very much exaggerated.

That’s been particularly evident in the 2020 cycle. It’s true that a number of well-qualified candidates won’t be on the ballot in Nevada, South Carolina, and other more diverse states. Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand; Governors Jay Inslee and Steve Bullock; former governor John Hickenlooper; and former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro are all gone. What did them in, however, was a national process: the “invisible primary” of donors, endorsements, other support from party actors, media attention, and early success or failure in public opinion polls.

None of those winnowed candidates were doing well in Nevada, South Carolina or the national polls when they dropped out. Most of them had very little support from party actors. Harris did have quite a bit of national support, but she took the risk of ramping up her campaign when polling was good, and wound up collapsing when her polling, and therefore her fundraising, went south everywhere.

The other piece of this is that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire are interpreted — by party actors and by the media — with their demographics in mind. Pete Buttigieg did get a boost from winning (sort of) in Iowa, but a lot of observers discounted it because it was regionally and demographically friendly for him; similarly, Joe Biden’s weak showing did hurt him, but if he really keeps his support among black voters in future states and party actors across the nation, he’ll probably survive it — and if they desert him, there’s a good chance he would have lost them anyway had South Carolina gone first.

The same thing will be true today. A Sanders win would be discounted because he’s from Vermont. Biden would be in big trough if he can’t break 10% of the vote, but a solid third-place vote would help him because no one thinks New Hampshire is a good state for him. Of course, that’s not the only thing that determines media reactions. But then again, any candidate who does well in Iowa and New Hampshire but can’t convert that into success in Nevada and South Carolina isn’t going anywhere anyway.

Yes, it’s true that Iowa and New Hampshire (and Nevada and South Carolina) may have a better chance than other states to have candidates pander to their parochial interests. But the importance of the national invisible primary puts some serious constraints on that. A candidate who ignored groups just because they aren’t present in Iowa would soon find national support drying up, and no amount of local campaigning can make up for that.

All of this is separate from the question of Iowa’s caucus system — and the ability to administer it competently. That may well be a good reason to strip that state of its position at the head of the line, although as Josh Putnam points out such changes are easier said than done, given the severely limited authority of the national parties. The idea I like, which I’ve seen floated by political scientist Dan Hopkins, would be to let a city or county — not a whole state — get added to the current early mix. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t happen in theory, although see again what Putnam says for why it would be hard to make it actually happen.

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

1. Dan Drezner on Trump’s 5G policy.

3. Rachel Bitecofer on Buttigieg’s prospects. The problem with handicapping the Democratic contest right now is there is good reason to believe that each of the candidates other than Biden has real vulnerabilities with black voters — but it’s not at all clear yet how any of that will play out. That said, there seem to be more hints so far of black voter resistance to Buttigieg than to any of the others. It’s still early, however.

4. Catherine Rampell on Fed candidate Judy Shelton.

6. Margot Sanger-Katz on Trump’s budget for health care.

7. And Jacey Fortin on ranked-choice voting.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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