The case for DC: Why our nation’s capital should vote before Iowa and New Hampshire

There are a lot of unwritten rules in politics, but Iowa and New Hampshire holding the first caucus and primary in the presidential cycle is more than a rule: it’s literally written into their state laws.

However, 2016 has, thus far, been a cycle for breaking the rules of politics. With February only a few days away, there’s a very real possibility that both Iowa and New Hampshire could give their respective nods to a democratic socialist and a white nationalist — both of whom only joined their respective parties relatively recently. If Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump win in Iowa, it will amount to a major blow to the Democratic and Republican establishments — so much so that they might consider rewriting one of the most bedrock laws of our presidential nominating process:

If Iowa really would lose its spot as the first state to vote in presidential primaries if it picked Sanders and Trump, that would perhaps be the best reason to root for those two candidates to win there (and New Hampshire, too, assuming similar consequences). After all, it’s positively ridiculous that Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first every cycle. Their insistence on continuing to do so has had deleterious effects on American political discourse and public policy. It’s high time we took that privilege away.

But who would replace them? Princeton Ph.D. candidate Kevin Collins has an idea:

To be clear, I think it makes the most sense to either rotate the order of nominating states or to hold all of the contests on one primary election day. And Collins might, too. His is just a thought experiment. However, where we definitely agree is that if there is to be one state — and for reasons I’ll get into below, our nation’s capital would almost certainly become one if it was moved to the front of the nominating schedule — then DC’s got a much better case than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

Here’s why:

DC would be at least as good at retail politics

There are two main arguments for why having Iowa and New Hampshire as the first caucus and primary states is a good idea:

  • They’re small, so they can get lots of candidate face time per capita
  • They’ve internalized their role as the arbiters of presidential primaries, so they take their politics seriously

The first argument applies to Washington, DC more than it applies to either Iowa or New Hampshire. The city is smaller by population and much smaller by geography than both of these early states. Its voters are also walking or driving distance (as opposed to a flight away) from where many presidential candidates are hanging out already. If it were the first nominating contest, candidate face time per capita would skyrocket.

As for the second argument, Washington is also, by definition, home to some of the most politically engaged people in the country. Not only is there no reason to believe that any state, once granted “first in the nation” status, wouldn’t learn to take its politics as seriously as Iowa and New Hampshire currently do, there’s also no reason to believe that DC voters don’t take their politics seriously already. Again, if anything, the case for Iowa and New Hampshire applies at least as well to DC. This being the case, DC is uniquely positioned as the best place in the United States to do retail politics.

However, DC currently holds one of the last nomination contests. By the time they vote, the candidates for the general election will almost certainly be set. This being the case, no one has any incentive to campaign there, even though it would be one of the best places to campaign.

To get a sense of what I mean, consider: Right now big-name politicians are more likely to speak at Iowa State than they are to speak at Howard; if Washington went first, Howard wouldn’t go three days without a presidential candidate visiting during primary season. This would be a good thing.

The current primary schedule is biased in favor of rural voters

We know that farm subsidies are financial, environmental and public health disasters. You can draw a straight line from industrial farmers cashing in on crop insurance funds to America’s skyrocketing obesity rate and associated issues. In other words, farm subsidies are killing people in an indirect but very real way.

However, knowing all of this, we can’t get rid of them because you can’t be elected president without bear-hugging Iowan farmers and promising to keep their subsidies safe. Not only that, but you can’t even think about running for president if, as an elected representative, you cast any votes that could be construed as anti-farm. That is, unless you’re the stuff of Aaron Sorkin’s deepest fantasies:

The need to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with large and powerful blocs of rural voters, puts constraints on American public policy that do real damage in the long run. Taking away their “first in the nation” statuses would at least be a step in the direction of redefining the terms of these public policy debates. At the very least, prospective candidates wouldn’t have to commit to the status quo before they even decide to run.

If we’re going to incentivize presidential candidates to pander to the pet issues of voters in one particular geographic area at the expense of the rest, let’s at least set those incentives to favor people who could use some preferential treatment. Like the good (not bad) folks of Washington, DC who are, for absolutely no good reason, still not residents of an actual state:

If winning an election in Washington, DC significantly boosted your chances of becoming president, Washington DC would become a state. Or, at the very least, they would be allowed to write their own damn laws without congressional approval. These priorities for DC residents would affect current and prospective presidential candidates the same way farm subsidies do today. This isn’t necessarily why making DC the first nomination contest would be a good idea, but it would certainly be a positive side-effect.

The current primary schedule is biased against urban voters

Iowa and New Hampshire had a combined population of 4.4. million people in 2012. Des Moines, Iowa was the largest city in either of these two states with just 207,000 residents, making it the 104th-largest city in the country. The 103 cities ahead of Des Moines (Washington, DC being the 24th-largest) combined to hold 62 million residents — nearly twenty percent of the US population. Holding an early nominating contest in a 100% urban area, such as DC, would in many ways act as a proxy nominating contest for the tens of millions of Americans who live in big cities and are currently shut out of the early stages of our presidential primaries. It would force presidential candidates to engage with a litany of urban issues that barely break into our national politics.

Washington, DC's flag on H Street, via Mr.TinDC / Flickr

Washington, DC’s flag on H Street, via Mr.TinDC / Flickr

For instance, the current heroin epidemic is a massive issue, yes. But there’s a reason why presidential candidates are spending so much time talking about it (and directing funds to fight it during election yearsinstead of, say, ending the drug war more generally: Heroin is a rural, white issue. The criminalization of marijuana and mandatory minimum sentencing laws are urban, black issues. If Washington, DC was moved ahead of New Hampshire, you would see a near-immediate and corresponding shift in drug policy rhetoric and proposals.

It’s not just drugs, though. Moving DC to the front of the primary calendar would force a discussion on all sorts of urban issues. To take another example, Hillary Clinton had to go out of her way to bring up the Flint water crisis during the last presidential debate. The Republican candidates have, by and large, avoided having to address the issue entirely. However, what happened in Flint wasn’t an isolated issue: A study from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that a significant number of other American cities — including Atlanta, San Francisco and Albuquerque — are all at risk for crises similar to that of Flint. As the scandal in Michigan unfolded, the New York Times (and others) asked how the issue would have been handled differently were the city’s residents mostly rich and mostly white. I would also ask how our political response would look if our presidential candidates were currently vying for votes in a city with similar municipal issues.

There are a number of other issues that would receive necessary attention were our candidates currently barnstorming in the parts of Washington that they would otherwise never go, from public transportation to antipoverty programs to housing to infrastructure (high speed rail, anyone?). I’ve listed a few; jump in to the comments with more.

DC is “real America,” too 

All told, nearly 81 percent of the United States lives in urban areas, up from 74 percent in 1970 (Iowa started going first in 1972), but only 64 percent of Iowans and 60 percent of New Hampshire residents live in urban areas. The United States is 78 percent white; Iowa and New Hampshire are 93 and 94 percent white, respectively.

Which is why Bernie Sanders’s final ad in Iowa, despite being a great ad for Iowa, was criticized for being much whiter than the national Democratic electorate:

The current song and dance presidential candidates are forced to go through at county fairs, diners and American Legion lodges in small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire presents the median American voter as a 55 year-old white male farmer. Sanders’s ad includes a bit more diversity, particularly across age and gender, but not much.

The thing is, this portrayal of the median American voter hasn’t been true for quite a while, and it becomes less true with each passing year. Were Washington, DC’s residents added to the list of people presidential candidates had to court this time every four years, it would force America to come to grips with the fact that our country is a lot more diverse than we make it out to be. To be clear, candidates would still be hopping between other early nominating states, which could still be rural and white, but moving DC to the front of the calendar would make the early stages of the nominating process more representative as a whole.

One of the things people like about having Iowa and New Hampshire go first is that it forces politicians and the media to go to parts of the country that they would never otherwise visit and meet people they would never otherwise talk to — “real Americans,” as it were. But this would be no less true if candidates had to canvass in Northeast DC or Anacostia along with Loveland, Iowa, or if they had to shake hands at community events in Petworth along with Freedom, New Hampshire. Washington may serve as a hub for the elite, but its poverty rate also exceeds the national average. It’s got its fair share of wealth, yes, but folks who dismiss DC out of hand often forget many of the richest people who work in Washington live in Maryland or Virginia. The things about DC that the rest of America hates aren’t representative of the city as a whole.

All this is to say that if you want to actually win an election in DC, you need to win voters who are as “real American” as the folks who live in “flyover states.”

Iowa and New Hampshire could very well upend the rules of American politics next month to the point at which our national parties reconsider whether it’s a good idea to give them the first crack at selecting our presidential nominees. If such a reconsideration is to take place, and if one place is to have “first in the nation” status, then DC’s got as good a case as anywhere else that it should be the one.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • nicho

    So candidates that would score well in CA, MA, NY could be knocked out of the race by yokels in Montana, Delaware, North Dakota.

  • TomL

    I’ve always thought a 3-stage process would work well. A small group of states would go first (this could be random, I like that idea). This should take place in early April with no campaigning/advertising before Feb 1. Then in early May, most of the other primaries would be held, reserving the six or so largest states (representing about half of the delegates/electoral votes) for June primaries.

    With this method, almost every vote would be significant. The earlier voters would be establishing the trend, without giving any candidate enough delegates to cinch the nomination.

  • nicho

    Why on different days? That’s what I don’t understand. Other countries all vote at the same time. It seems to work.

  • nicho

    I’m pretty sure states get to decide when their elections are held. It’s not a federal decision. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I think that’s the way it works. NH used to hold their in March — but has been moving it so that it remains first.

  • Honestly, I’m waiting for the day when some state gives the upraised middle digit to Iowa and New Hampshire and passes their own law saying THEY have to be first.

    Seriously, who would decide this? SCOTUS? And how would any court decide which state’s “US FIRST!” law had precedence? Does the schedule regression just keep going until the primaries in both states were to have happened a month in the past?

    In my lifetime, I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, California, and New Mexico. Know what all three of those have in common? They are states never visited by candidates before the first primaries begin and so by time it’s gotten around to me getting to cast my primary election vote, it’s nearly always been moot by that time anyway.

  • I once saw a proposal for a randomized round-robin primary system, starting with four states (including DC) picked at random, all of which have their primary on the same day. Two weeks later, another 8 states, also randomly selected before the primary season begins. Then a gap of 1 month before the next 12. Another month, then 13, and after the last month, the final 16. (This list would include DC as an actual voting section, as well as the eligible U.S. territories and commonwealths as their own block.)

    Based on this, states other than Iowa and New Hampshire and the first set of ‘Super Tuesday’ states would actually get a say in who’s picked and the candidates would stop pandering to just those few states’ special interests.

  • mark_in_toronto

    As with MOST of the election process, it ALL needs to change.
    Campaign Finance
    The Electoral College
    Scattered Rural Caucuses
    Absentee Ballots
    Voter Registration
    Voter Rights
    ALL of it needs to be changed to be a more coherent, updated system.
    But as with most issues in the USA, staying the course means continued power and wealth for those actually at the helm. They don’t want change.
    So, what are you going to do about that?

  • aPEON

    “–Someone should tell me a convincing reason why the first in the nation nominating contest should be in Iowa instead of DC–+–NOT—-You have to GIVE the reason for change, who made you God to determine what should be. This is a Republic, not a kindergarten democracy—–making a city made up of FedGovServants the bellweather is STUPID.

  • nicho

    How about we just end this circus-of-the-absurd process. Every state holds their primary on the same day. Candidates can’t actively campaign until eight weeks before. We have this thing called television now. Candidates can make their case on that. This two-year process of absurdity is a mockery and does nothing more than stuff the media’s pockets full of money. It’s ridiculous.

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