What If Nevada Voted First In The Democratic Presidential Primaries? Or New Jersey? Hawaii?

When it comes to the presidential primary calendar, it can feel like if you’re not first (or, at least, not living in one of the four states that get to vote early on), you’re last. For a long time now, that has meant that if you don’t hail from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, candidates and political media could care less what you think. 

But for Democrats that might finally change. Concerns about Iowa and New Hampshire’s representativeness have only grown in recent years. Not to mention that after Iowa’s disastrous 2020 caucuses, where myriad technical problems hampered the reporting of results, there have been renewed calls for the Democratic Party to alter its calendar ahead of the 2024 presidential cycle.

The latest push came earlier this month, when the Des Moines Register reported that the Democratic National Committee was examining a draft proposal to determine which states would vote early. Under that proposal, states would seek a waiver to vote early based on multiple criteria, including a state’s “ability to run [a] fair, transparent and inclusive primary”; ethnic diversity; geographic diversity; union representation; and general election competitiveness. And although the DNC didn’t end up considering the proposal at its March gathering, intraparty debate over the calendar will continue, with the possibility that some set of these criteria will play a role in determining the voting order of states in 2024.

With that in mind, we took a look at what the primary calendar might look like if the early-voting states were determined by these sorts of criteria. Of course, not every state would apply for a waiver, and we also can’t know for sure what data the DNC would use or, moreover, what secret sauce it would employ when deciding how to weigh various data points; nor does the DNC have full top-down control over the voting order of states. But! If we set all that aside, this might still be the direction in which the party moves, so here’s a look at which states would score well — or poorly — based on the fairness of their elections, their ethnic and racial diversity, their rate of union membership and their competitiveness in the 2020 presidential election.

First up is a states’ ability to run fair, transparent and inclusive primaries. Following the contentious 2016 Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, when Iowa’s caucuses featured a razor-thin margin with no mechanism for a recount and multiple caucus states struggled to handle large numbers of voters, Democrats have embraced the use of primaries, going from 14 caucuses in 2016 to two in 2020, and likely one — or maybe even zero — in 2024.

State-run primaries score well on the DNC’s election-fairness metric because those primaries give voters the ultimate flexibility in casting their votes. Generally speaking, voters have hours to vote at their local precinct (or even more time if their state allows for early voting!) and can then go about their day. This is also somewhat true for states where the state party runs the primary instead of the state government — usually because the state has no presidential primary law — but we scored state-run primaries higher because the two types aren’t equivalent: In state-run contests, the state and local government manage things and voting is similar to casting a ballot in the general election, whereas a party-run event tends to have shorter hours and fewer voting locations.

Caucuses, on the other hand, score the lowest because they are much more time intensive. In Iowa, for instance, Democratic voters must commit at least a couple of hours of their evening to the process, which typically involves hearing supporters talk up each candidate, casting a vote and then potentially shifting support if the voters’ candidate doesn’t have enough backing to be “viable.” Time and accessibility are big reasons why primaries usually have higher turnout than caucuses. 

But as you can see in the map above, there isn’t actually that much difference between the states on this metric. Only Iowa scores really poorly, and in 2024, Iowa may be the only state that uses a caucus — provided it doesn’t go for a party-run primary — as Nevada passed a law last year that established it will use a presidential primary starting in 2024.

On the DNC’s next metric — the racial and ethnic diversity of a state — there is more of a stark difference. Iowa once again scores poorly as one of the whitest states in the country, but so does New Hampshire. In fact, this lack of diversity in the first two states to vote is one of the biggest criticisms of the Democratic primary calendar, especially considering about 2 in 5 Democrats identify as people of color, according to the Pew Research Center. We don’t know how the DNC would measure the diversity of a state — for instance, would they consider the overall diversity of the state or just the diversity among Democrats? — but one straightforward way to measure a state’s diversity is to use the U.S. Census Bureau’s Diversity Index, which calculates the likelihood that two people chosen at random in a state will be from different racial and ethnicity groups. Based on that measure, western states like Hawaii, California and Nevada score extremely well, as the table below shows.


Hawaii is the most diverse state

The 2020 racial and ethnic makeup of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., and how each scored on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Diversity Index (DI)

The Diversity Index (DI) measures the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different racial and ethnic groups. Numbers for white, Black, Asian, and other races do not include those of Hispanic ethnicity.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Nevada, of course, already votes early, having gone third in the Democratic primary since 2008, so between its recent switch to a primary and its sizable racial and ethnic diversity, it would score very well on these first two criteria. As for the other states that currently vote early, Iowa and New Hampshire score among the bottom six spots, while South Carolina finished right in the middle of the pack.

That means the DNC might want to take note of the other places that score highly on this metric; Maryland, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia round out the top 10, including the three western states we mentioned earlier. We know geographic diversity is something else the draft proposal prioritized, so if the DNC wanted to pick a Northeastern state instead of New Hampshire, the party might pay special attention to New Jersey. 

New Jersey Democrats recently made the case to the DNC that the Garden State should go early, and the fact that New Jersey ranks eighth in the Census’s Diversity Index suggests it would help improve the relative diversity of the early states. Not to mention, New Jersey ranks second in FiveThirtyEight’s urbanization index, and for a party largely built on a base of voters living in large metropolitan areas, it might also be a good fit under that metric.

Labor union membership was another criteria laid out in the draft resolution, and while participation in unions has declined markedly over the past 50 years, organized labor remains an influential part of the Democratic coalition. It spends millions on behalf of Democratic candidates, and Biden won 56 percent of voters in union households in 2020, according to national exit polls. Here, too, Hawaii tops the list, although it just narrowly edges out New York as the state with the largest share of workers who belong to unions as of 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hawaii and New York are the most unionized states

The employment and union membership totals of workers in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., as of 2021

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Hawaii doesn’t have a presidential primary law — Democrats there used a party-run event in 2020 — but the Aloha State is still an attractive early-state option (maybe most of all for campaign reporters) given how well it scores on both diversity and union membership. Union membership is also a point in favor of New York and New Jersey, which also both rank in the top 10 for diversity. Meanwhile, of the current early states, Nevada ranks 17th and New Hampshire 21st, while Iowa ranks 33rd and South Carolina finishes dead last when it comes to union participation.

The last factor we’ll examine is how competitive a state was in the 2020 general election, using the popular vote margin between President Biden and then-President Donald Trump. On this metric, Georgia and Arizona top the list as both states were decided by less than a half percentage point in 2020, followed by Wisconsin, the “tipping-point” state, or the state that delivered the decisive 270th electoral vote Biden needed to win.

Georgia and Arizona were the most competitive states in 2020

The 50 states and Washington, D.C., in order of the popular vote margin between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in 2020

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

This is actually a metric where most of the current early states score fairly well, too: Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa all rank in the top 13, while South Carolina comes in at 18th. It’s also a weak point for some of the other states that score well on diversity and union membership: Biden carried Hawaii, New Jersey and New York by at least 15 points in 2020, for instance, making them uncompetitive.

So where does this leave us in the early-state debate? Well, if we take each of these four components, standardize the data for each state and then sum the scores across all four measures, Nevada is perhaps the best early-state choice for Democrats, just narrowly edging out New York:

What Democrats’ new primary calendar could look like

Standardized scores for primary access, diversity, union membership and general election competitiveness for the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

The scores represent the standardization of each output, except for primary access, where states with primaries were scored as 1, states with party-run primaries were scored as 0 and caucus states were scored as -1. Primary access is based on 2020 voting method and recent changes to state law where applicable.

New Jersey and Hawaii also make the top five, as does Washington, which already experienced a primary calendar change recently, moving its primary to early March in the 2020 Democratic contest. There isn’t a ton of good news in these scores for the other three early-voting states, however, as South Carolina and New Hampshire ranked in the low 30s, while Iowa comes in at 47th.

We mentioned this earlier, but there is one other important consideration here that was not possible to score: geographic diversity among the early-voting states. And that’s something Democrats (and Republicans) already have with the current lineup. Each of the first four states comes from one of the four census regions: Nevada from the West, Iowa from the Midwest, South Carolina from the South and New Hampshire from the Northeast. 

Nevada seems well-positioned to hold onto its position as the key Western state under these metrics, but maybe New York or New Jersey fight to replace New Hampshire from the Northeast. Lower down the list, Michigan as the Midwestern state with the highest score looks to supplant Iowa, and Georgia edges out South Carolina as the Southern state that scores highest.

Of course, we are not suggesting that Nevada, New York, Michigan and Georgia are about to top the 2024 Democratic primary calendar. Rather, this exercise gives us a better idea of how the different priorities laid out in the draft resolution might shake up the primary calendar. In the end, though, it’s unlikely that the DNC will take such a cut-and-dry approach. For instance, South Carolina doesn’t score all that well (32nd overall), but part of its appeal as an early state for Democrats is that it has a sizable Black population, which is an important part of the Democratic base. And while Georgia also has a larger number of Black voters, one advantage to South Carolina is it’s not as populous, so it’s cheaper to advertise in — something that is generally true of most media markets in the current early states.

Additionally, say that the DNC does try to change things, states in danger of losing their primo spots on the calendar can push back. Different state laws could make it challenging to supplant Iowa and New Hampshire, too. Iowa law dictates, for instance, that the state’s caucuses shall be held “at least eight days earlier” than any other presidential contest, while New Hampshire’s law gives discretion to its secretary of state to move the date to preserve the Granite State’s status as the “first in the nation” primary. In fact, every state government and/or state party sets the date of its contest, so while the DNC can try to influence those choices, they ultimately have only so much power to set the calendar. Not to mention the GOP doesn’t plan to make any changes to its early primary calendar, which could make it even more complicated to supplant states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

In other words, while it’s clear Iowa and New Hampshire have plenty of reason to worry, don’t necessarily bet against them kicking off the cycle again in 2024.

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