For generations, Iowa and New Hampshire have held a special place in American politics, as the first states to vote in the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination process. Candidates flock there long before the election year for steak frites and county fairs, endless town halls and good handling.
Former Nevada Senator Harry Reid and his state Democratic Party want to change all of that. For more than a year, Mr Reid has publicly called for the primary calendar to be reversed – pushing Nevada, of course, to the fore.
The Democrat-controlled Nevada legislature took one step closer to that goal this week, introducing a bill that would eliminate the state caucus process and replace it with a primary that would be held at the end. January of the presidential election years. The bill is likely to sail to approval and be signed by Governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat. But the Democratic National Committee will determine whether Iowa (which holds caucuses), New Hampshire (which holds primaries), or Nevada goes first (or another state!) – a decision that likely won’t come for another year. and will surely require the approval of President Biden, who lost Nevada to Bernie Sanders in 2020.
The Times recently spoke to Mr. Reid by phone about his desire to change the schedule and make Nevada the first in the country to vote in the presidential election. The interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with the basic question: what’s the case for Nevada first?
Well, if you look at Iowa and New Hampshire and look at how Joe Biden did in those two states – he was fourth and fifth in those two states. Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the country. There is no diversity. So it is unfair, in my opinion, to have them as the first two main states, because it really gives a bad impression of what the country is.
I am also convinced that the caucus system is as nearly worthless as anything can be. Caucuses are unfair. The Democratic Party should get rid of all of them. They are just not fair.
If Nevada had hosted the first primary in 2020, how do you think the election would have been different?
I’m not saying it must be the first, but I think it must be one of the first. I spoke to Congressman Clyburn and I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make South Carolina and Nevada two of the first states. It is not fair that Iowa and New Hampshire have set the tone for the electoral process during this cycle.
I have no problem having regional primaries. Deserves more attention.
What could it look like?
Well, maybe in the West, you have to exclude California because there are so many voters there, but you would have Idaho, Utah, New Mexico. So it would be a suggested region and it would be the idea of what we do in the rest of the country with regional primaries. I think you could get some traction here.
Biden failed to win Nevada in the Democratic nominating primaries when he was the third state to vote. Would it have made a difference to him if Nevada had voted first?
What saved Joe was Nevada, he came in second. If he hadn’t come second in Nevada, going to South Carolina in the next few days wouldn’t have been great for him. But his second place finish showed his viability, and following Clyburn’s endorsement of him in South Carolina, it propelled him into that presidential nomination.
Can you explain a little bit about some of the differences between voters in Nevada and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire beyond racial diversity?
Racial diversity, of course, is one thing. Joining a union is another thing we have in Nevada. Number three, America’s population center is moving west. Previously, the majority of Americans were east of the Mississippi. Now it’s just the opposite. So I think it’s important for people to understand that the West is now very populated and is becoming the center of our country.
Unions are so strong in Nevada politics. Will that skew a first in the national primary because the candidates will be so focused on union endorsements, which will give unions more influence there?
I think union political activity is only part of what’s going on in the state of Nevada or any state. We have union membership, which is important, but you have it in other states as well. Arizona has a strong union membership and, surprisingly, even a state like Utah, the Salt Lake area is heavily unionized.
Can you explain a little more what you said about South Carolina? Would you like these two states to be the first states together?
I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but my conversations with Jim Clyburn are based on what happened when Joe did so badly in Iowa and New Hampshire. Then he came to Nevada and came in second, went to South Carolina and did really well. There is nothing wrong with – as far as I am concerned – having elections on the same day and in different states.
And of course, this will all be up to both President Biden and the DNC to favor him and then give Iowa and New Hampshire that hard blow. The merits won’t really matter if no one wants to anger Iowa and New Hampshire. So how do you get Biden and the DNC to go down that road and ignore Iowa and New Hampshire?
It has nothing to do with hurting the feelings of Iowa or New Hampshire and has everything to do with doing the right thing for the country and the Democratic Party.
Do you have any commitments from Democratic officials outside of Nevada or are you trying to get them?
Well I spoke to Tom Perez many times when he was president so he knows how I feel. But I don’t have any commitments, it’s not something I did. I’m just trying to spark a dialogue that I think is really important now rather than at the last minute.
South Carolina, by all accounts, has been the most important factor in the last three Democratic primaries, meaning black voters have had the biggest impact on the choice of candidate. So why the case of Nevada’s diversity in particular?
I believe that Nevada is a diverse state and black voting in South Carolina really matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters. You know we have a very strong culinary union here in Nevada with probably 75,000 members. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who have something to say about what happens in a Nevada election. And it’s the same in South Carolina. The African American vote is really important, but there is more to the state than capture the black vote.
What I’m still trying to figure out is why does it still matter? The top three states ultimately didn’t determine the outcome of the 2020 primary, and Biden wasn’t really competitive in any of them. So what difference does it make?
Well, of course that matters because he came in second here in Nevada and that propelled him to South Carolina with some momentum.
Can you talk a bit about the difference it usually makes for who is starting out? For example, if you’re someone who doesn’t mind politics in January of an election year, why should you care who starts?
I think this draws attention to the upcoming elections. And I think it’s important that these states represent what’s going on in the Democratic Party across the country.
There have of course always been these jokes about all the attention given to ethanol during the primary because of Iowa. What issues do you think would get a lot of attention in Nevada?
Public lands and tourism. Tourism is the first, second or third growing economic force in all states – it’s an issue they need to focus more on.