Skip to content Skip to footer

Presidential Primaries Are Racist. Period.

Who gets on the presidential ballot is decided by states that are overwhelmingly white and rural.

Signs direct Republican and Democratic caucus-goers at Valley Church in West Des Moines, Iowa, on February 1, 2016.

More than a year out from the 2020 presidential Democratic primary, hopefuls have begun to put their names in the hat as the best bet in kicking Trump out of the White House. The U.S. left is ready to do battle, no matter how fresh the wounds of the 2016 election may still be.

Whether or not opposing Trump should be Democrats’ one and only concern is a conversation worth having; but before the Democrats have that conversation, there is something more urgent to consider: candidates must fight through an inherently racist presidential primary cycle.

For instance, Sen. Cory Booker and Tom Steyer are already spending valuable political capital in Iowa testing the waters. Presidential 2020 hopefuls Senators Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and others have likewise been reaching out to campaign staffers in Iowa, who are suddenly a hot commodity.

What could be so important about Iowa? It’s not super politically representative of the nation as a whole, unlike, for example, the very purple state of Virginia. It doesn’t have massive amounts of voters; its population is 3.1 million and it has only six electoral votes. So, what’s the catch? Iowa is the most important stop in any primary run because the state holds the very first caucus, and the winner of the Iowa caucus is most often the winner of the primary. Let’s take an honest look at the state.

First and foremost, Iowa is more rural, older and more conservative than the nation as a whole. In 2016 nationally, 48 percent of the country voted for Hillary Clinton and 46 percent voted for Trump. Yet, in the general election, Trump won the state, with Clinton bringing in only 42 percent. These figures aside, the racial variation becomes even more dramatic.

Of the 3.1 million Iowans, 91.1 percent are white compared to a national percentage of 76.6. About 3.8 percent of Iowans are Black, 2.6 percent are Asian, less than 1 percent are Native American and 6 percent are Latinx. The U.S. on the whole is 13.4 percent Black, 5.8 percent Asian, 1.3 percent Native American and 18 percent Latinx. Worse yet, despite the growing Latinx population in the state, not many of them are participating in the caucus. Five percent of Iowa is foreign-born compared to a national percentage of 13.4 percent. Starting to get the picture? Now this in itself doesn’t mean the primaries are racist; they do have to begin somewhere. But the problem becomes more apparent when we see just how important Iowa is. Since 1980, every primary winner of the two major parties began by taking either the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primaries or both. The only nominee who didn’t follow this trend was Bill Clinton, who came in second to Iowa State Senator Tom Harkin.

Our last three presidents would have won the Iowa caucus, but Trump was defeated by Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016’s caucus thanks to the Evangelical vote. Trump would go on to take the latter of the first two must-win primary contests: New Hampshire, amassing more votes than the next two candidates combined (Gov. John Kasich and Senator Cruz). Moreover, if you thought Iowa was homogenous: New Hampshire is 94 percent white, and only 2 percent of its population is Black.

Some might pose that the primary system can’t be racist. They might point to how well Obama fared as proof of Iowa’s “colorblindness.” But that counterargument doesn’t really get to the root of the issue: This voting process narrows the field of candidates and warps their political stances, policies and rhetoric in a very racialized way.

The ties between race and politics are most apparent in the institution of voting itself. Since the Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder stripped the Voting Rights Act of its section 5 preclearance statute so crucial in preventing discriminatory voting laws, the states which originally had these laws have wasted no time in restoring them. The consequences have been devastating.

Stephen Pettigrew’s work on voter restrictions reveals that, “Every additional hour a voter waits to vote, their probability of voting in the next election drops by 1 percentage point.” Hence, in 2014, 200,000 people did not vote because they had waited in long lines in 2012. The motivation behind this policy set doesn’t require complex analysis or obscure reasoning; the Republicans who have been pushing the restrictive laws have stated their obstructionist goals very clearly.

The idea that voter suppression disproportionately affects communities of color isn’t a novel idea for voting rights advocates and students of the civil rights era. In recognition of those who remark that it is either not an issue or that voter suppression has nothing to do with race, the empirical evidence to the contrary is inordinate. A simple look at the laws displays how the suppression of Black voters was a key to a Trump victory and the go-to move for Republicans. Multiple states, including Texas and Wisconsin, passed new voter ID laws prior to the 2016 election, and a litany of Southern states closed many polling stations. The effect is summed up best in the poll data collected by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute: Latinx and Black voters were twice as likely as whites to not be able to get off of work while the polls were open. Voter ID laws suppressed Black and Latinx voters at rates three times that of white voters. Given this and the blatant suppression that occurred during the 2018 midterms, there is little doubt that 2020 will see another fight for enfranchisement waged at polling stations across the nation.

Therefore, voting for a Black person in the most important primary is not the same as supporting political issues of the Black community in the most important primary. African American voters remain a liberal voting bloc that — due to racial segregation and gerrymandering — are stuffed into dense political districts where their voting power is neutered. And as a result of our presidential primary system, issues important to voters of color are an afterthought. By the time voters of color get to hit the ballot box, the races are already decided, literally.

Of course, even if you think race is being unfairly brandished here, you surely wouldn’t mind letting Illinois, Kansas, Virginia, Texas or Hawaii primary first. These states are more diverse racially in terms of religion, class and culture.

The reasons Iowa goes first are relatively arbitrary. The state was given the spot due to the complexity of its caucus system at a time when the rural nature of the state made it a logistical nightmare to run; it needed the extra time. Now the order is more a result of inertia than anything else. When Michigan and Florida tried to hold earlier primary contests in 2008, they were halted by the threat of losing half their delegates.

Even if we can’t agree on another more diverse primary state, there are a bevy of other options, such as running our primary like we run our general election. No offense to Iowans, but the entire country deserves a say in who runs on the biggest of tickets.

While the likelihood that in 2020 our biased institution will warp the political platforms of all comers is great, the lesson couldn’t be clearer: disengagement isn’t an option. Getting involved and taking a seat at the table on the very basic political level is a charge that can be embarked upon by many and has the potential to change the systems of oppression, perhaps more than any presidential candidate.