Rotating regional primaries: A grand bargain to save Iowa

Rotating regional primaries: A grand bargain to save Iowa
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Here’s the biggest victory from Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary: the 2020 Iowa caucuses have now become more a receding and unpleasant memory than a heart-stopping bungle. But Democrats anxious to put the Iowa debacle behind them will miss a vital opportunity.

The Iowa imbroglio has renewed calls for sweeping reforms of the presidential nominating process. It reminds us that the caucuses are rich in tradition but scant in diversity. Just 4 percent of Iowans are African American, compared to 13.4 percent of Americans nationwide. Last week’s population of caucus participants represents just 1 percent of the national Democratic electorate.

Proposals to mitigate the outsized influence of the Hawkeye State have included scheduling a single national primary; lumping Iowa in with a swath of more diverse states; or allowing smaller states to go first and leaving larger states to go later. But each proposal allows Iowa to preempt the date. And why not? Ceding influence and attention violates the fundamental laws of politics.


So here’s a compromise that would allow Iowans to continue to bask in the limelight without marginalizing a more diverse electorate: Let them go first, followed by an immediate super-Tuesday-style regional primary that rotates in sequence every four years.

Let Iowa be February’s “First Tuesday” caucus state. By late February, there would be the first regional primary in 13 Southern states, including Virginia, Texas, Florida and the Carolinas. In mid-March: 13 Western states would vote, from Alaska down to Arizona. April would cover Eastern states, including New York and Pennsylvania, Maine and Maryland. A final Midwest regional primary in May would involve the electoral battleground states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota — places that Democrats must win in a national general election. There would be a quadrennial rotation of the primary order, to ensure greater fairness.

The National Association of Secretaries of State offered a similar plan in 2008. What it did not offer was any incentive for Iowa to cooperate.

This compromise retains Iowa’s proud tradition of being first. It also ensures greater diversity and requires candidates to demonstrate an ability to win over base voters and swing voters at the same time.

Mark Siegel, former executive director of the National Democratic Committee, sees problems with the plan that likely would need to be resolved by the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). “We would need either federal legislation to regulate what has always been a process under state control, or a synchronized and coordinated RNC and DNC mandate, which is highly unlikely. Just as unlikely is that 46 states will change their own primary election laws to conform.”


Then again, Siegel notes that the Iowa failure could doom that state’s special status. “I don’t know what the 2024 calendar will look like, but I doubt it will start in Iowa.” 

Which is exactly why Iowa should think about endorsing a compromise that preserves tradition while accommodating new realities. 

Change is coming. Always better to be ahead of it than left behind.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.