Moneybox

Here Are Just a Few Ways We Could Replace the Iowa Caucuses

People stand in a gym underneath a basketball hoop, carrying signs for different candidates.
This is no way to pick a president.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The one silver lining of Monday night’s disaster at the Iowa caucuses is that it just might—maybe, possibly, finally—spell the end of the Iowa caucuses. For years, people have questioned why an overwhelmingly white and rural state should get to hold the first primary season contest every four years using a system of voting that requires people to wearily stand around a gym for hours on end. It feels like this latest debacle, in which a cascade of technical and logistical failures prevented the Iowa Democratic Party from reporting its results before the end of the night, might finally put a stake in the whole beast.

But what should replace the caucuses? Do we just pick a different, more diverse, and technologically adept state to kick off primary season? Move to a single national primary? Force the candidates into feats of strength and possibly trial by combat? There are a lot of ideas out there, some of which are pretty baroque. (NPR put together a nice list with pros and cons for several in 2016.) Since we’re all waiting around for the caucuses’ results anyway, why don’t we run through a few of the options?

1. Just make Iowa have a normal primary

How It Works: Let Iowa keep going first, but only if the state has a normal primary election instead of a caucus, because caucuses are a barbarous relic.

Pros: It’s probably the path of least resistance that still brings an iota of sanity to the system.

Cons: Iowa would still go first.

My personal verdict: Thumbs-down. The Hawkeye State needs a timeout.

2. Pick a different state every cycle

How it works: You’d just pick a different state each time. That’s it. Do it alphabetically. Do it with a lottery. However you like!

Pros: No more bickering about who “deserves” to go first. Plus, every four years would bring us a fresh batch of stories about a new state’s quaint political traditions and odd, folksy mores, rather than yet another nightmarish dispatch about fear and loathing at the Iowa State Fair.

Cons: In one way or another, lots of states are wildly unrepresentative of the country or the Democratic Party as a whole, so we’d just end up cycling through one bad option after another. Also, it would literally take 200 years to make it through all 50. (Plus, voters would probably be extremely disappointed if their state’s turn came and their party already had an incumbent.)

My personal verdict: Thumbs-down. Variety isn’t always the spice of life.

3. Let Illinois or Delaware do it

How it works: You pick a new state to hold the first primary contest every year. Probably Illinois or Delaware.

Pros: Look, there are some good reasons to let a single state go first. It allows relatively obscure candidates without a ton of money to demonstrate that they can win over voters through pure retail politics, or by focusing their limited resources on a single battleground. That, in turn, can create a virtuous cycle of better press coverage and more donations that helps them mount a national campaign. Seeing a candidate win in an early test state can also assuage concerns about electability. The classic example is Barack Obama, who surged nationally and, most importantly, among black voters in South Carolina after he pulled out his win in Iowa.

But if you are going to let one state do it, it should probably be somewhat representative of the country and party as a whole. Thankfully, NPR also went and put together a fun index measuring which state’s demographics most closely matched the national average on race, religion, income, education, and age. The answer: Illinois. It’s a big state—population 12.6 million—but it’s got a nice balance of cities, suburbs, and farm country. If you want somewhere really, really tiny for retail-politicking purposes, Delaware might also work.

Cons: You’re still putting all of your eggs in one basket, and people will find reasons to be upset no matter which state you choose. In Illinois, the entire race would probably become a contest to see who could run up the score in Cook County, which contains Chicago and its suburbs. And Delaware is basically a tax haven with an Amtrak station—it’s not clear why it should have a privileged place in our national politics. Plus, you’d still be trusting a single state’s local parties to avoid catastrophic logistical failure. Maybe the lesson of Iowa is … we shouldn’t do that?

My personal verdict: Thumbs-sideways. Better than the status quo, but not by a ton.

4. Have a national primary

How it works: Every state would vote on the same day using normal primary elections instead of caucuses, which, I cannot emphasize enough, are a barbarous relic.

Pros: It’s straightforward. Everybody votes at once. The system would favor candidates capable of building national support and raising lots of money, which is what you want in a general election candidate anyway.

Cons: There are a lot of them. The system would hand a huge, built-in advantage to candidates with a ton of early name recognition (Joe Biden), a ton of money (Mike Bloomberg), or a ton of name recognition and money (Bernie Sanders) who are capable of waging a national campaign. That would shape the media coverage candidates received, which could create a pretty vicious Catch-22 for lesser-known politicians: To win, you need media attention and money, but to get media attention and money, you’d need to win. You’d also lose the ability to winnow down a large field through a series of early proving grounds, which means the nominee might prevail with just a plurality of support, rather than a broad coalition within the party.

My personal verdict: Thumbs-down. It’s a system that gives billionaires and famous old guys even more of an edge than today.

5. Have a national primary, but with ranked-choice voting

How it works: Same as above, except you use ranked-choice ballots, otherwise known as an instant runoff system.

Pros: Ranked-choice voting is slowly gaining popularity around the country because it allows people to back the long-shot candidates they truly love without effectively throwing their vote away. Here’s how it works: Voters rank their candidates in order of preference. If no one candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the one with the fewest is eliminated, and their supporters are then redistributed to voters’ next choices. This process continues until someone gets a majority. In a national primary, it would help solve the crowded field problem. Progressives could rank Sanders and Warren first and second. Moderates could put Klobuchar at the top if their heart desired, and list Biden as a fallback.

Cons: Ranked choice is a little bit confusing, and sometimes yields odd results. In some elections, the winner might be a candidate who was almost nobody’s first choice but lots of people’s third choice. And if primarygoers don’t actually have the energy to rank all of the candidates—and, inevitably, some voters won’t—then there’s a chance their ballot won’t count.

My personal verdict: Thumbs-down. Ranked-choice voting isn’t common enough for most voters to be comfortable with it yet, and the system is still tilted toward rich and/or already famous candidates.

6. Pick four states, one from each census region

How it works: The U.S. Census Bureau separates the country into four main regions—the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. Pick one state from each, and let them vote together on the same day. You can rotate which state represents each region every four years for the sake of variety and fairness, or not.

Pros: This is the Goldilocks option. It would still give dark horse candidates a shot, but diversify the electorate racially and geographically while decreasing the logistical risks associated with holding the first contest in one state. If you didn’t want a clean break with precedent, you could actually keep Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada in the starting four, provided they all adopted normal primary elections. Or you could change it up. (Again, I’d argue Iowa has earned a demotion.) Chase your bliss, America.

Cons: I really don’t see any. Unless you’re one of those people who’s just stubbornly attached to the idea of a single national primary.

My personal verdict: Thumbs-up. It’s a good idea. We should do it.

7. Have a regional primary

How it works: The Census Bureau further breaks the country down into nine different subregions. You could rotate through them every four years.

Pros: In terms of scale, it’s a compromise between having a single state vote and having a national primary.

Cons: Regional jealousy. And it’d still give a single corner a disproportionate influence over the Democratic nominee.

My personal verdict: Thumbs-sideways. I prefer proposal No. 6. But this would still be better than the caucuses.