In a country as diverse as the U.S., why does predominantly white Iowa still lead primary season? Here Are Five Better Options

Former Secretary of Housing and Development Julián Castro has a problem with the lack of racial representation in the first two states kicking off the primary season, Iowa and New Hampshire. Castro, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, called on the Democratic Party to move up states that are more representative of the nation’s population ahead of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Castro recently questioned how fair the presidential primary system is when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, noting that Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that are each more than 90 percent white, often sets the stage for who will nab the Democratic nomination.

“I actually do believe that we need to change the order of the states,” Castro told MSNBC on November 10 from Iowa. “Demographically, it’s not reflective of the U.S. as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party, and I believe other states should have their chance.”

In a separate interview with Vogue, Castro said the party cannot thank Black women for pushing Democratic candidates to victory but hold the first caucus and first primary in states that are overwhelmingly white. In Iowa, for example, Black people only account for 4 percent of the population, while Latinx people make up 6.2 percent of the population. New Hampshire has even lower Black (1.7 percent) and Latinx (3.9 percent) populations.

A perfect example of the diversity problem Castro is addressing can be seen in the rise of Pete Buttigieg. The South Bend mayor, who has the support of just 2 percent of Blacks throughout the country and less than1 percent in South Carolina - the fourth democratic primary state which has a Black population of over 27 percent - is the current frontrunner in Iowa, according to a new CNN/ Des Moines Register poll.

“We’re right to call Republicans out when they suppress the votes of African Americans or Latinos, but we’ve also got to recognize that this 50-year-old process was created during a time when minority voices had zero power in the party,” Castro told the magazine.

Castro’s criticism of Iowa’s status as first-in-the-nation has not stopped him from campaigning there. On November 23 and 24, Castro is set to attend events in Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Storm Lake and Sioux City, his campaign announced.

While it is too late to change the primary schedule for the 2020 election, Castro has called on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to consider making changes by 2024, Vogue Here’s a look at the first five states to host a Democratic Party primary or caucus. Iowa - February 3 (White 90.7% / Black 4.0% / Latinx 6.2%) New Hampshire - February 11 (White 93.2% / Black 1.7% / Latinx 3.9%) Nevada - February 22 (White 74.3% / Black 10.1% / Latinx 29%) South Carolina - February 29 (White 68.5% / Black 27.1% / Latinx 5.8%) Alabama - March 3 (White 69.1% / Black 26.6% / Latinx 4.4%) Changing the order certainly won’t be easy. Party leaders in Iowa have used “political clout” to keep the state’s “first-in-the-nation” status, The New York Times reported. When Tom Perez was vying for the chairman post for the DNC in 2017, he promised to protect Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status to get the Iowa delegation to support his bid. Other candidates who were up for the position, including Buttigieg, did the same.

What Other Candidates Are Saying

While Castro has been the only candidate to speak out against Iowa and New Hampshire being the first states in the primary season, other candidates haven’t exactly been defending the two states’ status as first- and second-in-the-nation.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination, acknowledged to local Iowa reporter Caroline Cummings that the first two states were far from representative of America’s diverse population. But argued that should not stop them from playing a crucial role in the election.

“Are they representative historically and practically — based on race and creed and color — of the nation? No, they’re not,” Biden told Cummings. “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play a major part.”

Fellow Democrat, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) didn’t even want to entertain the possibility for risk of offending voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. When asked by Democracy Now! about a change in the order of primary states, Warren responded, “Are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?” She later added, “Look, I’m just a player in the game on this one.”

History of Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation Status

Iowa, a state that has a 90 percent white population, hasn’t always been the first in the nation to cast its vote in choosing presidential nominees. The move to make it the first began after the rocky 1968 Democratic convention, when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) decided that it needed to lessen the power of party leaders and include more grassroots activists, according toDes Moines Register opinion editor Kathie Obradovich.

Following changes to district and state conventions, it was determined that Iowa’s caucus process needed to begin earlier than the original set date of May 20, 1972, Christopher Larimer, a professor of politics at the University of Northern Iowa, explained to The North Star. State party leaders were also bogged down by slow copiers called mimeograph machines. Larimer said that party officials were using the mimeograph to make copies of materials needed at each state event.

So officials decided that the precinct caucuses needed to start as early as January 1972. “So Iowa’s hallowed place in presidential politics was born, not out of political savvy or as a public relations boon, but because of a lot of paperwork and old, slow office equipment,” John C. Skipper wrote in his book “The Iowa Caucuses: First Tests of Presidential Aspirations, 1972-2008.”

Richard Bender, a staffer for the Iowa Democratic Party at the time, told Skipper: “We kind of knew we would be first and we thought that would be nifty. But we didn’t do it to be first. Then again, no one had ever paid any attention to us before. We never dreamed the amount of attention we would get.”

Soon after, the results of the Iowa caucuses began to play a large role in determining the viability of candidates.

In 1972, Senator George McGovern’s campaign chief Gary Hart decided to make a strong bid in Iowa as a way to boost McGovern’s media presence before the New Hampshire primary. The ploy worked, according to Obradovich, and it was later replicated in 1976 by Jimmy Carter.

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status saw some pushback in 1980 following Carter’s re-election loss. The national Democratic Party issued new rules restricting how early each state could start its nomination process, but kept Iowa’s caucus first. In response, Vermont moved up its straw poll, prompting New Hampshire to move up its primary. Not wanting to lose the buffer period between its caucus and New Hampshire’s primary, Iowa made its caucuses even earlier.

In 1983, party leaders in Iowa finally voted on an earlier official caucus date. “Today, Iowa caucuses are first-in-the-nation mainly because the state insists on remaining first,” Obradovich told The Des Moines Register.

Slow mimeograph machines may have been behind Iowa’s climb to first-in-the-nation, but changes in copier technology make that reason obsolete.

So should Iowans have the first say?

Changing State Primary Order

What would happen if the order of state primaries changed, like Castro suggested? Larimer told The North Star that wherever the process is started, it will influence the end results. The politics professor noted that within the Democratic Party, the correlation between how candidates do in Iowa and how they do in New Hampshire is strong.

However, on the Republican side, that correlation is not strong at all. “A lot of that is driven by recent years where you had really socially conservative candidates like a Mike Huckabee or a Rick Santorum or a Ted Cruz winning Iowa,” Larimer said. “And those types of socially conservative candidates do not do well in New Hampshire.”

Larimer said that if, for example, the order was changed so South Carolina followed Iowa, then Republicans would definitely see a stronger correlation. “Sequencing matters in the sense that how you set this up as for who goes first, that does matter,” Larimer told The North Star.

A 2009 study from the American Political Science Association (APSA) ranked states by “descriptive representation,” which means the report compared the social, economic and political characteristics of Iowa and the other states. Study authors also looked at state size and “an extensive battery of state-level socioeconomic and political measures.”

The APSA study found Kansas to be the most representative state, followed by Oregon, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. Iowa came in at twelfth on the list, but was still considered to be a “reasonably representative state,” according to the data.

There are some experts that strongly feel that way. Professor Leo Landis, the museum curator of the Iowa Historical Museum told TNS that based on Iowa’s history, Iowans have done a good job representing the main ideals of the Republican and Democratic parties.

“Iowans take the process very seriously and our voter participation rate is usually in the top 10 percent in the nation,” Landis told TNS. “Look at those larger states voter participation rate and compare it to Iowa. Should a state that has greater participation rate of voters be leading the nation or a state with less voter participation rate?

“I certainly realize that there are a number of factors that come into play on voter participation, but we’re usually in the top 10 and when you get into the presidential selection we are usually in the top five,” Landis continued.

During the 2018 midterm elections, Iowa was ranked in the top ten of voter participation with 57.4 percent, according to the United States Election Project. The state was also listed in the top six of voter participation during the 2016 election, with 68.4 percent of voter participation turnout.

Based on research conducted by TNS, below are five states that would make more sense as first-in-the-nation primary states over Iowa. We took a look at the racial demographics and economic factors of each state, as well as their major cities and rural areas. These five states were more in line with the demographics nationwide, making them far more representative of the country as a whole.


Current Census data shows that the population of Illinois closely mirrors that of the U.S. as a whole, when it comes to race, age and gender distribution. The U.S. population is 76.5 percent white, 13.4 percent Black or African American and 18.3 percent Hispanic or Latinx. Illinois mirrors national demographics, according to Census data. Based on 2010 estimates, Illinois is 76.9 percent white, 14.6 percent Black or African American and 17.4 percent Hispanic or Latinx.

It’s not just Illinois’ racial makeup that make it such a great state to begin the primary season. The APSA report found that Illinois ranked only a few states below Iowa and a dozen states ahead of New Hampshire when it comes to representativeness of the country.

While Illinois is a better representative of the nation’s racial demographics, the same report also found its economic representation score to be among the lowest of the 48 states counted in the study. This means that it is not representative of the economic conditions – average pay, per capita income, median household income, union membership and housing prices–experienced on average in the nation.

We also took a look at Illinois’ population distribution between its major city (Chicago) and its suburban areas. More than 2.7 million people live in Chicago, which is the largest city in Illinois and the third largest in the country. The rest of the state’s 10 million residents live in the states’ other cities and suburbs.

The state’s primary election is set to take place on March 17, 2020.

New Jersey

New Jersey is 72 percent white, 15 percent Black or African American and 20.6 percent Hispanic or Latinx, according to census data. Like Illinois, New Jersey is also similar to the U.S. population and has a slight increase for the African American and Hispanic populations.

Although the state’s population is quite large, with over eight million people, 107 Democratic delegates, and 52 Republican delegates, it’s still a small enough state where candidates can easily canvas and advertise. On the ASPA study, New Jersey was ranked high in the representation score, but came second to last in economic representation.

The primary date for New Jersey is set for June 2, 2020.

New York

The data shows New York is 67.7 percent white, 17.6 percent Black or African American and 19.2 percent Hispanic or Latinx. The state was also listed low on the APSA report, like New Jersey, but was ranked high in representation. New York was also ranked last in economic factors in the APSA report. Its primary election date is on April 28, 2020.


The census data from Virginia shows that the state is 72 percent white, 15 percent Black or African American and 9.6 percent Hispanic or Latinx. In the APSA report, the state was ranked in the top four of state representativeness, but was ranked at 34 out of the 48 states for economic representativeness. The state’s primary election date is set for March 3, 2020.


The state is made up of 78.5 percent white, 17 percent Black or African American and 5.6 percent Hispanic or Latinx, according to the census data. Tennessee was listed in the top 20 of the APSA report of state representativeness and was ranked as 23 out of 48 states of economic representativeness. Its primary election date will also be held on March 3, 2020. *Maria Perez also worked on this story