Analysis: The Problem With Iowa and NH Going First in the Democratic Race

We're giving a lot of attention to 460k votes in mostly white states, when only 1.6% of Democratic delegates have been awarded so far.

Iowa and New Hampshire are the first caucuses and primary in the Democratic presidential race, per tradition. But the amount of media attention lavished on their results without proper context can be misleading.

Based on current turnout numbers from these two states, we’re talking about the whims of about 465,000 voters from states that are 92% white. (The Democratic primary electorate is about 60% white.) And that’s fewer voters than the population of Kansas City, Missouri.  And Tucson, Arizona. And Louisville, Kentucky. Almost twice as many people live in Fort Worth, Texas!

And yet based on these results, TV pundits and news outlets in your social media feeds will claim New Hampshire is “all important,” that this is now just a two-person race, or that certain candidates should drop out.

For the leading candidates — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden — these early projections and declarative statements are not wholly true. Sanders has the lead in the popular vote so far; we can all agree on that. Buttigieg is in a close second. But Warren came in third in Iowa and is third in the overall delegate race, and she's been all but erased from the mainstream conversation.

This numerical context matters, and is missing from the national conversation on "electability.” That’s problematic because of how future voters may base their choices: it’s often on who's considered the most electable, as portrayed by the media, after only two small, non-diverse states have voted. In Iowa’s case, Democrats didn’t even win in the 2016 general election — Donald Trump won by almost ten percentage points. Should voters there really be picking the frontrunners in the Democratic race?

We know why it happens. Presidential primary races in the U.S. are too long — this one is already stretching into its 14th month, longer if you count candidates announcing "exploratory committees" — and pundits are desperate to talk about anything that's new, including some concrete results after all this speculation, and fill up airtime. But there are still substantive issues to discuss, and context that's needed.

So here’s the context you may be missing when you (or your family) are clicking through TV channels or scrolling on social media:

  • 98% of the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination are yet to be awarded. *48* more states and seven U.S. territories will still hold their primaries and caucuses, mostly in March and after. Super Tuesday this year is on March 3, when 14 states vote, including Texas and California. 34% of the total delegates available will be awarded on that single day, compared to the 1.6% that have been awarded so far from Iowa and New Hampshire.
  • Two economists actually did a study to try to measure the role of Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nominating process, and found that one single voter in Iowa or New Hampshire “had the same impact as five Super Tuesday voters put together.” Five! That’s because people react to the results, and resulting media coverage about who has “momentum,” and may change their votes if they think their preferred candidate has less of a chance of winning. But if people vote based on the perception of other people’s preferences, rather than their own, that skews the data — and the race.
  • New Hampshire primary voters don’t have the best track record of voting for the eventual nominee. As NPR pointed out, New Hampshire has picked five Democratic nominees since 1976, and "just one became president — Jimmy Carter." (Voters there went for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and the 2012 race with President Obama as the incumbent was a non-competitive primary.)
  • The next states to vote are Nevada on February 22 and South Carolina on February 29. Both states are much more diverse and will test how candidates do with large numbers of Latino and Black voters.

A candidate needs 1,990 delegates to win the Democratic presidential nomination. These are the numbers so far, which could even change based on Iowa’s current recanvassing of results:

  • Buttigieg: 22 
  • Sanders: 21 
  • Warren: 8
  • Klobuchar: 7
  • Biden: 6

All other remaining candidates have yet to win any delegates.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times, who wrote about the economics study above, had this to say of Iowa and New Hampshire: “The two states have dominated the nominating process for so long that it’s easy to think of their role as natural...But it is not natural. It’s undemocratic, in fact. It is unfair to voters in the other 48 states...They are not better or worse than other states, to be clear. But they are different.”

So keep things in perspective. People in those other 55 states and territories deserve to have their votes count, too.