A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa Caucuses.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

A Modest Proposal: Replace the Iowa Caucuses

The process stinks, and we should be having a wider discussion about what ought to replace it.


Even before embarrassing technical mishaps rendered the Iowa caucuses a spectacular anti-climax, it seemed that Americans’ patience with the way our political parties pick their nominees was waning.

This cycle, the most pointed criticism of Iowa and New Hampshire’s power to winnow down the field of presidential contenders came from Julián Castro, who lamented that the heavily white populations of both states aren’t representative of the country as a whole. 

“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” Castro said at a Cedar Rapids campaign stop in November. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.” He’s right, of course. But a more general sense of resignation about this process abounds.

If it was once kind of endearing that the path to presidential power flows through school gymnasiums in Ames and Nashua—the stuff of West Wing episodes—it increasingly feels tiresome and anachronistic, a ritual no one can remember the reason for. The 2016 primaries in both parties were brutal, alienating slogs. There’s got to be a better way.

In truth, people are too hard on Iowa and the fellow members of the early state mafia. The system we have now, after all, was an improvement on the previous one: Up until the 1960s, power brokers picked party nominees in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. You could entrust many worse states with these powers than Iowa, which, among other things, made Barack Obama’s 2008 nomination possible. And the Iowa caucuses, while they have many obvious drawbacks, are charming. They’re a social activity in which neighbors exercise civic responsibility together, debating face to face instead of slipping into isolated voting booths. 

But what was once a quirky sideshow on the way to the nomination is now a make-or-break checkpoint in an obscenely expensive, exhausting race. Iowa didn’t change: We did. Billions of dollars are expended every four years to become president; each open primary now seems to have a dozen to three dozen candidates. The early states are bottlenecks in which radically different futures fight it out and no one else has much of a say, with little Iowa acting as the fulcrum. To win, candidates need to start putting down roots in the state years in advance, and convincing local middlemen of all kinds that they’ll send birthday cards to their cat from the White House or up the national ethanol mandate. 

It stinks, and we should be having a wider discussion about what ought to replace it. One popular idea is to simply have a national primary on one date. But that’s no good: It would simply mean the richest candidate, or the one with the highest name recognition, would win. We want to give candidates a chance to get to know particular voters on an intimate basis; we just need to take some of the weight off these voters. So here’s a modest proposal, ignoring for the moment the particulars that would need to be worked out between the parties and state legislatures and what-have-you.

On January 1, the parties select at random one state from each of the four regions represented by the current early states: the Northeast, South, Midwest and West. Candidates get 10 weeks to make their case to a captive audience before the selected states vote together on March 15.  The field is narrowed, and then narrowed again when four more randomly selected states from the same regions vote on one day in April. In May, everybody else votes. Voilà, the nominee.

This would have a couple of advantages. It would truncate the brutally long election cycle by preventing campaigns from starting in earnest until they know where the races will take place, while still giving underdog candidates somewhere to put work in. It would move our focus around so that our primaries might hinge on, say, Navajos in Arizona and residents of metropolitan Atlanta rather than annual deference to Iowa corn farmers and Harry Reid’s Nevada political machine. It would no longer be a catastrophe if one state party had to wait to release results.

There’s one way in which the current primary system is a perfect analogue for American politics: It’s an institution we inherited from our grandparents, one that we’ve committed to despite the nagging fact that it doesn’t work especially well and that few people can adequately explain why it came to be. Let’s rip it up.

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