Quoting https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/11/politics/iowa-new-hampshire-primary-monopoly/index.html:

The vote-counting meltdown in Iowa's antiquated and haphazard caucus system -- a process used partly to circumvent New Hampshire's law requiring it to hold the nation's first primary -- has further underlined the flaws in the existing order.

The idea that a state can make a law that it has to hold the nation's first primary seems absurd. What if every other state passed the same law? Would it go to the Supreme Court or something?

2 Answers 2


For the purposes of this answer I’ll only look at the rules for the democratic party (mostly because they were easier to find).

In short, the DNC will not recognize any primary or caucus held before the first Tuesday in March, with exceptions carved out for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. So if any states tried to leap-frog New Hampshire the DNC would not recognize the primary as valid (although they could still hold one).

Primaries are a weird system of national parties, state parties and state governments interacting. National parties hold a convention and sets out some rules for how those delegates are chosen by the state parties. But most state governments hold a primary which the state parties can opt-in to if they so choose. This is also different in each state so I don’t know the details perfectly.

This has some weird side-effects. In 2008 for instance the Florida and Michigan governments choose to move their state’s primaries to dates not allowed by the DNC and that caused some controversy (presumably the democratic parties in Florida and Michigan could’ve hold caucuses or party-run primaries on acceptable dates, but that would’ve been difficult and expensive to actually do).

And this year 5 states simply have no Republican primary.

Edit (per request): The Florida and Michigan delegates (and interestingly also their superdelegates) were given half weight at the convention. Though that was an ad-hoc decision by the DNC who had originally decided that those delegates should have no vote at all. What would happen if such a thing occurred again is ultimately unknown.

Also even if we assume that several states, let's say NH and CO, both had laws stating that their primary had to go first and that the DNC and RNC didn't try to restrict it (or the states didn't care), then they would still have to organise the actual primary. NH could announce a date and CO could then either try to hold their primary before that or realise that they wouldn't have enough time to hold it. Essentially it would be a weird standoff that would come down to logistics because planning and executing an election isn't easy.

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    you might explain what happened to the votes in FL and MI, it seems germane here.
    – dandavis
    Commented Feb 11, 2020 at 18:12
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    Could you provide a different link for your "5 states" one? It demands I hand over my data if I want to read more than the first paragraph
    – Pyritie
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 12:59
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    Surely two states could just hold their primary at the same time then? After all, one can be joint first :)
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 13:32
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    @Muzer That's problematic for the candidates who generally want to be canvassing in the states that are about to have their primaries trying to drum up support. Since they can only be in one place at a time, and having to decide between 2 states holding simultaneous primaries could get pretty thorny. Of course many of the later primaries are held simultaneously, but note that these are mostly larger states (California, Texas, etc.), where trying to personally visit the whole state would be very impractical anyhow. Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 14:50
  • This is suddenly become relevant -- the DNC has passed a resolution to change the order of primaries, but it violate's NH's law.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 20:43

The purpose of a system is what it does. When some system has been around for a long enough time to have gone through several changes, and people have had time and opportunity to make changes, and nothing has changed, the conclusion is that what the system is doing is what is desired. If the people who could make the changes wanted changes, they would make them.

So, if the stated purpose is different from the observed behavior, the stated purpose is not correct.

The first presidential election state primary was held in Florida in 1901. The purpose of the primary (and variations like a caucus, etc.) in the US political system was at one time probably to pick the candidate. Or to contribute to it by letting various voters see and meet and hear in person the candidate. Or representative of the candidate. They were spread over the calendar to allow for time to travel. In previous eras that meant by horse, then train.

However, much of that has fallen away. The purpose of the primary process today is to keep the candidates in the public view for months, even years. Various persons and groups have a huge interest in lengthening the political process.

  • News organizations generate "eyes on copy" or clicks or sales or whatever.
  • News organizations can exert their influence on the process by staging debates and playing intrigue games with how they are run, who is on them, what questions are asked, etc. and etc. This gives news personalities power they can cash in on after the election.
  • Professional polling organizations get to take polls, and sell the results, for months or even years.
  • Political candidates generate donations and endorsements.
  • Candidates have opportunity to make more and more complicated overlapping deals and fall-backs and counter deals.
  • Political parties generate donations.
  • Meeting halls and arenas generate events that put bums on seats. As do hotels and restaurants and other "entertainment" venues.
  • Various other groups get their moment in the public view, from unions to political action groups to protesters, to you name it.
  • Party power brokers get months or years to make their deals, cement their power base, grease the wheels that need greasing, get on TV talk shows, slag off other people for being on TV talk shows, etc. and etc.

The candidate is chosen at the convention. It would be perfectly possible to compress most of this circus into four or five days. Party organizations could select their reps to the convention in their own way, out of the brightest part of the spotlight. This is how many countries do things, such as Canada. But that would, you see, defeat the purpose of this process.

So you won't get multiple states passing laws they must be first. It would defeat the purpose. The purpose of Iowa being first isn't for Iowa to go first, but to mark the start of the season. Nobody else wants to go first, they simply want to go at a time to fill a hole so the attention is never zero. Their purposes in organizing things this way are, at most, very weakly connected to picking a candidate as such.

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    The US presidential primary system dates all the way back to 1972. Travel by horse was not a limiting factor. Commented Feb 11, 2020 at 20:17
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    FiveThirtyEight did a documentary project on what the system was before primaries, why it was changed, what the apparent consequences have been, and compared it to what other countries do. Worth a listen, especially the first episode, which covers the history.
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 11, 2020 at 22:04
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    @RupertMorrish State presidential primaries date back to the first one in 1901 in Florida. Maybe some of those helpful thumbs on your comment were hasty.
    – puppetsock
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 16:19
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    Re, "The purpose of a system is what it does." That's a cop-out. If a system satisfies its purpose, then there is no reason to change it. If the purpose of every system is what it does, then there is no reason to change any system. If you think that some system is dysfunctional, then you're over thinking it. Stop. Stop thinking. Trust the experts. Relax. Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 17:31
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    "if the stated purpose is different from the observed behavior, the stated purpose is not correct." Or the behavior is not correct. Come on.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Feb 12, 2020 at 21:18

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