Democrats’ 2024 chances start with primary reform
After a recent meeting of the Democratic National Committee, it appears the party is poised to end the 50-year tradition of Iowa kicking off the presidential nominating process. It’s about time.
Iowa is a wonderful state, of course. But it does not look like much of the rest of the country, where Americans — and Democrats especially — are increasingly diverse and living in cities and their surrounding areas. Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines, has fewer people than the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which also should not be the first in line to nominate a president (no matter how wisely it might have voted in 2020).
If Democrats want urban challenges to take center stage in presidential elections — matters such as reducing gun violence, improving public schools, expanding mass transportation, fighting homelessness, and tackling the pollution that falls heaviest on Black, Latino and Indigenous communities — it’s critical that the primary calendar include states where those issues are top priorities for voters.
At the same time, if Democrats hope to continue winning presidential elections, it’s critical that the party elevate purple states during the primary process, ensuring that candidates will spend lots of time there and invest in the work of bringing people to the polls. Up until now, most purple states — including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — have been afterthoughts, lumped into the fourth or fifth wave of voting, or even further behind.
During my 2020 presidential campaign, I spoke about the need for reform. After all, it makes no sense to incentivize candidates to spend their time and money in places that were unlikely to dictate the outcome of the general election.
When I campaigned in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Florida, I was the only candidate there, and the only one investing in organizing and advertising (often against Donald Trump) to those crucial swing state voters. Everyone else spent their time and war chests in Iowa and New Hampshire, neither of which ended up mattering (Joe Biden came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire). And neither general election outcome was a surprise (Democrats lost Iowa and won New Hampshire, as expected).
Instead, it was Democrats and independents in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Phoenix who played a central role in the general election. Organizing the primary calendar around them would give our party a better chance of winning again in 2024 and beyond.
The problem with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status isn’t just its lack of diversity and its increasingly rightward tilt. While the Democratic Party has made ballot access a major campaign issue, Iowa holds the most restrictive type of nominating process: a caucus. To vote in a caucus, citizens must spend a weeknight at a polling location, debating their neighbors for hours on end. In theory, this should make caucuses one of the rare settings where Americans have civil conversations about politics. But it has become a highly orchestrated archaic charade in which most voters decline to participate. In 2020, only 176,000 voters participated, in a state with more than 600,000 registered Democrats.
Across the country, switching from caucuses to primaries has proven to produce much higher voter turnout. In 2020, after Minnesota and Maine changed over to primaries, their turnout quadrupled. Colorado’s turnout increased by six times when it made the change. The Democratic Party should ensure that its first-in-the-nation contest reflects its strong support for voting rights and voter turnout.
Many states are jockeying to replace Iowa as an early state, and the party committee will make its selection in August. My hope is that it doesn’t settle for a single switch and otherwise leave the status quo untouched. The party’s best hope for success lies in creating a primary calendar that reflects the importance of cities, diversity, open balloting and swing states.
Iowa is a great state, and its citizens deserve our thanks for putting up with decades of presidential aspirants who have clogged its diners and scarfed its corndogs. But we cannot afford to let tradition harm our chances of winning the White House and Congress, especially when so much is at stake.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and was the 108th mayor of New York City. He is a United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions, is a Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases with the World Health Organization, and ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBloomberg.