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#PrimariesSoWhite: Why Do Two of the Whitest States Vote First for Presidential Candidates?

StoryNovember 19, 2019
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As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the presidential nomination process remains heavily weighted by two states that are among the whitest in the nation: Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates, in some cases, spend more than a year making frequent, extended campaign swings through both Iowa and New Hampshire, which, critics say, gives the concerns of the first states a disproportionate impact on the agenda for the entire race. During the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice earlier this month in South Carolina, Senator Elizabeth Warren refused to criticize the primary schedule, saying, “I’m just a player in the game on this one.” Fellow 2020 presidential contender Julián Castro, however, has been a vocal critic of the existing system, noting that the demographics of the country have shifted significantly in the last several decades. “I don’t believe that forever we should be married to Iowa and New Hampshire going first,” he told MSNBC last week. We speak with Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, and Ian Millhiser, senior correspondent at Vox.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as the United States becomes increasingly diverse, and the Democratic Party even more so, the presidential nomination process remains heavily weighted by two states that are among the whitest in the nation: Iowa and New Hampshire.

AMY GOODMAN: During the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice earlier this month in South Carolina, I asked Senator Elizabeth Warren about the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren, just 30 seconds left. But speaking about racial injustice, do you think the order of the primary states should change? You have Iowa and New Hampshire —

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Wait, let me make — let me just — before you finish, are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?

AMY GOODMAN: No, I’m asking about the order.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: No, that is what Iowa and New Hampshire are all about.

AMY GOODMAN: But let me just ask. They’re two of the whitest states in the country, and then we move to South Carolina with a very significant population of people of color, and it means the candidates spend so much of their time catering to those first two states. Overall, do you think that should change?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I’m just a player in the game on this one. And I am delighted to be in South Carolina. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much.

MUSTAFA ALI: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: It’s good to see you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.


AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren’s reaction to the question echoes the Democratic Party’s stance on maintaining first-in-the-nation status for both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. In 1972, Iowa Democrats moved the caucus up to January 24th to give themselves extra time to process the results from all the precincts. That early date made the Iowa caucuses the nation’s first indicator of each candidate’s standing, attracted extraordinary media attention. The Iowa Democratic and Republican parties agreed to hold their caucuses early and on the same day, to maximize national press coverage. New Hampshire then cemented its hold as the first primary state, immediately following the Iowa caucuses. Candidates, in some cases, spend more than time — more than a year making frequent, extended campaign swings through Iowa and New Hampshire, which critics say gives the concerns of these first two states disproportionate impact on the agenda for the entire race.

MSNBC played my exchange with Warren for Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro, who pushed back on the status quo.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I actually believe that we do need to change the order of the states, because I don’t believe that we’re the same country we were in 1972. That’s when Iowa first held its caucus first. And by the time we have the next presidential election in 2024, it will have been more than 50 years since 1972. Our country has changed a lot in those 50 years. The Democratic Party has changed a lot.

What I really appreciate about Iowans and the folks in New Hampshire is that they take this process very seriously. They vet the candidates. They show up at town halls. They give people a good hearing. At the same time, demographically, it’s not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party. And I believe that other states should have their chance. So, yes, of course, we need to find other states. And that doesn’t mean that Iowa and New Hampshire can’t still play an important role.


JULIÁN CASTRO: But I don’t believe that forever we should be married to Iowa and New Hampshire going first.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In another interview, with CBS, Julián Castro said, quote, “We can’t say to black women, 'Oh, thank you, you're the ones powering our victories our victories in places like Alabama in 2018,’ and then turn around and start our nominating contests in two states that barely have any black people in them. That doesn’t make sense.” But Castro won’t be raising this issue at Wednesday’s debate in Atlanta; he didn’t make the cut for this debate.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment we’ll be joined by Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, but first we turn to Ian Millhiser, senior correspondent at Vox.

Ian, welcome back to Democracy Now! How did this system happen? Who created this system, that two of the whitest states in the country are the first in the primary system? And now, with the extended pre-primary season, all of these candidates spend this time in Iowa and New Hampshire.

IAN MILLHISER: Well, I mean, as you alluded to in the intro, this wasn’t something done with intentionality. You know, no one in the Democratic Party sat down and said, “What are the two states that would be best to start off the process?” It’s just that Iowa and New Hampshire jockeyed themselves to the front of the line at a time when the media started paying a lot of attention to the early races. And now that they have it — you know, the psychological term is “loss aversion.” When you have something, you get very upset if someone tries to take it away from you. And that’s the problem with this dynamic, is that there was never any planning, there was never any thought that put into, well, who makes sense to be the first state. And then, once you get someone in that position, they’re going to be very, very resistant if someone tries to assign that position to someone else.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re also joined by Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. Welcome to Democracy Now! Could you talk about what the impact on a huge state like Texas, your state, is by the fact that the candidates are so focused in — so much time on Iowa and New Hampshire?

GILBERTO HINOJOSA: Well, I mean, it’s obvious. I mean, Texas is the second-largest state in the country. It is probably the most diverse state in the country Forty percent of the population in the state is Hispanic. Fifteen percent is either African-American or Asian-American. We are a majority-minority state, as is California and New Mexico. Yet, you know, we have to wait until the process in Iowa and New Hampshire completes itself. And Secretary Castro is correct. You know, these are not two states that are representative in terms of ethnicity of the Democratic Party.

I mean, it’s like — I’m from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. There’s about 1.4 million people that live in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s about 90% Latino. It’s like if we would have our primary in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and make — and have candidates spending three months there, continuously going to barbecues and different events that were being sponsored by the local elected officials. Nobody would think that that would be representative — a representative primary that you would have to start your election season with.

And so, I think this is a process that has been established through tradition. Tradition doesn’t work anymore. I think it’s not fair to the candidates, either. I mean, they spend an enormous amount of time and money. I mean, you know, the people go to big dinners there. Candidates go there. They have to put their supporters in the dinners. They have to pay for the supporters to be there. They end up spending thousands of dollars to get the attention in this small state of Iowa that doesn’t produce the results that are reflective of what our Democratic Party represents all across America.

So, I think it’s something that should change. At least we have to have a conversation. I’ve been on the Democratic National Committee for 10 years or longer than that, and we’ve never had a conversation on this issue. We’ve never talked about whether or not Iowa and New Hampshire should be the first primaries. We were always told, “This is the way it is, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.”

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the DNC chair, Tom Perez, made a deal with the Iowa delegation that he would not challenge their first status if they voted for him to be chair of the DNC. But I wanted to ask you — you told The New York Times, Gilberto Hinojosa, that you’re trying to host a forum in January. You have trouble attracting a lot of the presidential candidates because they say they’re too busy in Iowa.

GILBERTO HINOJOSA: Well, in fact, we would like to have a forum with all the candidates in. And in Iowa, they’re having a forum at the exact same time, and therefore, the question is: Are you going to — right before the caucuses, is a candidate going to come to Texas, that has, you know, the 38 electoral votes and has a heck of a lot more delegates going to the national convention, or are you going to go to Iowa, that has a small number of delegates and electoral votes? Which is going to produce the most results for you?

Well, because Iowa is first, people are going over there instead of this state, that has much more potential for especially, you know, second-tier, at least in terms of where they’re being rated, candidates. I mean, I just think it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t help us flush out the whole process to where we could get a candidate that has a better chance of winning in November. And I just think that, you know, we’ve never had this conversation before, and it’s very frustrating for us. I mean, we have — we’re a state that is clearly purple now. It has been declared to be a battleground state. If Texas were to turn blue, it would be all over for the Republican Party’s ability to elect a president of the United States, because we have so many electoral votes. Yet we’re being placed behind these other states and not given an opportunity to get these candidates in the state, to compete in the state and to be able to come out with the delegates that help them go in the direction of being able to get the nomination.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Ian Millhiser — this whole issue of whether this is the way it is and it can’t be changed, talk about some of the history. We only have about a minute and a half left. But there’s always been a battle over how these primaries’ —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — selection process occurs. And it actually was after the 1968 Democratic convention, when Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without winning a single primary, that a lot of the major changes have occurred.

IAN MILLHISER: Right, yeah. I mean, the modern system, where primaries actually matter, is fairly new and was created in — it was in the '70s. The issue here — well, I'll tell one particular piece of history. And this is in 2004. Howard Dean was the front-runner for most of that Democratic primary. And then, shortly before the Iowa caucuses began, a video clip emerged of him criticizing the Iowa caucus, from before he was even a presidential candidate. And that was when the momentum shifted. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a causal relationship there or not, but I do know that that clip was played constantly in Iowa media. He was attacked relentlessly for it. And he wound up taking third. So, if you are presidential candidate — you know, I don’t blame Elizabeth Warren for being evasive about things, because Iowa will punish you if you come after that first-in-the-nation status. And it’s a problem, because it’s not good for the Democratic Party to have this one unrepresented state — unrepresentative state constantly be first in line.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you now have Julián Castro, who’s not going to make it to tomorrow night’s debate. The top four candidates are all white.


AMY GOODMAN: Yet there is a diverse group of candidates for the Democratic Party. At the start of October, the Charleston Post and Courier found Buttigieg had no black voter support in South Carolina, just 4% support overall. But now this poll shows he is almost 10% ahead of all other candidates in Iowa.

IAN MILLHISER: Right. Now, I mean, I will caution about that poll. I’m old enough to remember when Herman Cain was the front-runner for the Republican nomination. So, there’s often — when you see a lot of movement in the polls, it just means that people are undecided. But, yes, I mean, Buttigieg is a candidate who seems to appeal very well to the white electorate in Iowa, and at least the —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Ian Millhiser, senior correspondent for Vox, and Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party.

I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stream Democracy Now!’s impeachment coverage at democracynow.org.

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