In just a little more than two weeks, Iowans again will become the first Americans to declare their preferences for the next president of the United States.
It’s been that way since 1972.
So here’s a question: Why not make Missouri first?
After all, it remains one of the most representative states in the union. It’s urban and rural. It has Northern and Southern sentiments. St. Louis offers an East Coast vibe, while Kansas City opens the door to the West.
Over the years, Missouri leaders have considered the idea. But the short answer to the question simply is this: It’s far easier said than done — and it would probably take years of effort.
Former state senator Jason Crowell, who once pushed the idea, still marvels at the stories he reads every four years about Iowans who boast about shaking the hands of every presidential candidate.
“Why don’t we have stories about Missourians who do that?” the Cape Girardeau Republican said this week. “I want these presidential candidates to come and ask me for my vote.”
Crowell and others point to Missouri’s long-standing status as a reliable presidential bellwether that only in recent years has tilted Republican. It’s situated at the crossroads of the nation, Crowell said: “It’s an eclectic state.”
And one, in his view, that’s tailor-made to lead off the nomination process.
Indeed, until 2014, state law called for Missouri to have its presidential primary in early February, a date that this year would have placed it shortly after Iowa and, for a change, even before New Hampshire’s first presidential primary.
That law got the state in a heap of trouble in 2011 when word came from national Republican headquarters that the early date violated party rules. Over the years, those rules have come to safeguard the status of early states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
If Missouri had persisted for the 2012 election, it was in jeopardy of seeing half its national convention delegation go unseated.
That spooked the Missouri GOP, which then declared that the Feb. 7 state presidential primary would be a beauty contest only and that its March 17 caucuses would be the election that determined the true presidential preference of Missourians.
That result was chaos. The state wound up spending several million dollars to stage a meaningless February primary, then saw sparse crowds at the March GOP caucuses where the real business got done. Caucuses are party meetings that sometimes last several hours and often require citizens to publicly state their preference. In a primary election, voters step into a voting booth, cast a ballot and head out the door.
Lawmakers had tried to do away with the 2012 primary, but failed.
“Dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my time in the legislature,” then-state senator Kevin Engler, a Farmington Republican, said at the time.
Others were equally incensed that the state party buckled. They said Missouri would have picked up all kinds of significance if it had stuck with its February date and not kowtowed to national party demands. At the time, Republicans were struggling to choose among Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, among others.
“We could have been the center of the universe,” said former Missouri state senator Brad Lager, a Republican.
The March primary date didn’t become law until 2014.
This year, Missouri holds its primary on March 15, two weeks after “Super Tuesday” on March 1, when 14 states and American Samoa vote. March 15 is the same day as primaries in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina.
Kansas holds its party caucuses on March 5.
For now, any arguing about moving earlier on the calendar in Missouri appears to have subsided, although some, such as Crowell, continue to insist the state is making a mistake. Iowa and New Hampshire voters, he said, are not doing the nation any service because their picks are so predictable. Iowa voters tend to be evangelicals who pick socially conservative candidates, he said. New Hampshire voters go for centrists.
“That’s not telling us anything,” Crowell said.
Missouri’s demographic makeup, he argued, would make the results far more meaningful.
No one seems to dislike the idea of going early. But the reality is that making the push could take years. It means bucking the party establishment and possibly turning the state into the black sheep of the presidential nomination process. While the fight raged, presidential contenders might ignore the state rather than risk embracing a band of rebels. The state could see its convention delegation cut in half, and in a year like this one that could see a close race for the nomination, the move could prove costly.
“This year, of all years, you would put the state in a great disadvantage if you were walking into the convention where nobody has a majority and we would come in with half a slate of delegates,” said Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock. “You’d end up with a minimized influence on the outcome.”
State laws in Iowa and New Hampshire stipulate that those states will be the first caucus and first primary state, respectively. Then there are the rules of both parties dictating that the first states will be Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The addition of Nevada, with a sizable Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with a substantial African-American base, was made, Democratic Party officials say, to round out the demographic representation of the early states. Iowa and New Hampshire are both heavily white and non-urban.
“Lot of forces are in play that would make that an enormous lift,” said Roy Temple, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.
Iowa and New Hampshire have placed members on key committees in charge of shaping the primary calendar. Virtual industries in both states have sprung up that would lobby hard if their states’ early status was threatened along with the millions of campaign dollars that flow into those states for TV ads, car and hall rentals, and the like.
“We do everything to cover our bases,” said Norm Sterzenbach, former Iowa Democratic Party executive director.
With lots of insiders protecting the pre-eminent status of Iowa and New Hampshire, no one appears eager to try to jump ahead of either state.
To wage that war, a state would need a presidential contender or national party chairman willing to argue the case, Temple said.
“There are very complex dynamics and, frankly, structures in place that those early states work to preserve,” Temple said. “They would be very difficult to dislodge.”