Why is Iowa the first caucus and why is New Hampshire the first primary? Well, it’s been that way for a while, since the 1970s when the Democratic Party began allowing Iowa to run the first caucus in 1972. The Republican Party followed suit giving Iowa the first in the nation status for the first presidential caucus. Iowa stands as the first state in the Midwest to give voters a voice in the presidential primary process. New Hampshire has retained the same standing for voters in the Northeast, also since the 1970s when the state acquired the “first in the nation” status for holding a Presidential primary each quadrennial presidential election year.

South Carolina follows New Hampshire to give Southern voters a chance to weigh in, and recent years has seen Nevada added as a chance for voters in the Western part of the country to have an early voice in the process. All four states have been granted somewhat of a “protected” status from the national parties to hold their voting before other states.

However, Iowa and New Hampshire get the most attention, and every election cycle it seems they are fighting harder and harder to maintain that status and maintain relevance in an environment where campaigns are increasingly nationalized.

New Hampshire Could Be “First In Name Only” (FINO)

According to the Boston Globe, political insiders in New Hampshire are fearing that 2020 could be a watershed year in watching the Granite State’s influence over the process begin to wane:

While the state is on track to host the first presidential primary in 2020, it might be less relevant than ever.

“There are a number of us freaking out,” said a former state senator, Andrew Hosmer, a Democrat who now serves on the Laconia City Council. “The concern is that this is becoming more of a national primary and that New Hampshire might only serve as a small part of that.”

The reason for the panic? A perfect storm of factors, including the primary calendar, an increasingly nationalized campaign, and the expected left-wing clash between two of the party’s leading candidates who hail from neighboring states.

Sure, New Hampshire’s dominance has been challenged before by an ever-shifting primary calendar, or another state threatening to hold a similar contest earlier in the cycle. But this time it’s not what comes before New Hampshire but what comes after it that has worried local insiders.

Just three weeks after the New Hampshire primary, nine delegate-rich states — including California, Texas, and Massachusetts — will have primaries on March 3.

New Hampshire will remain as the first primary following the Iowa Caucus, but will it mean as much in a year when larger states, such as California, decided to move their primary as early as allowed on the calendar?

Why would campaigns bother spending much time in a small state like New Hampshire when the real prize is on Super Tuesday when hundreds of delegates will be awarded.

The other reason why New Hampshire matters less in 2020 has to do with the Democratic field. With Elizabeth Warren already declaring her candidacy, and hailing from neighboring Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders who may also get in the race, hailing from neighboring Vermont, the race would be a battle between two “local” names.

Candidates who appeal to other parts of the country may decide they’d rather cede New Hampshire to Sanders or Warren and go spend time in other states.

‘The primary could come down to a Warren versus Sanders contest that both have to win,’ said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. ‘And if that is the case, then you can see how other candidates may feel like playing in Iowa or South Carolina will give them more national press coverage if they do well.’

Indeed, a large field of lesser-known candidates may, in theory, believe that New Hampshire is a great equalizer because its small size and intimate politics give less-financed candidates a chance. But if Warren and Sanders each have unprecedented funds to spend, and state polls show them consistently in first or second place, it could overshadow whichever candidate successfully pulled into third or fourth place in a large field.

The circumstances have lined up this year to push the trend towards a more nationalized primary, where campaigns seek national media attention to blanket their message to the most number of states with the highest number of voters. With cable news and internet coverage, states are less isolated than they were 20 or 30 years ago in terms of presidential politics.

What About Iowa?

The Iowa Democratic Party is taking a different approach to maintaining relevance. Their status as being the first caucus on the calendar will continue to give them prime attention from candidates, of course, but there is always room for improvement.

In 2020, participants in the Democratic Caucus will be able to vote remotely, even on their smartphone, according to FOX 28 in Iowa:

Iowa Democratic leaders Monday announced a new option for registered party members to take part in Caucus night. The plan calls for a virtual caucus that will take place over several nights leading up to the precinct caucuses that will be accessible by phone and by smartphone app. The goal is to make sure that every Democrat in Iowa, regardless of physical condition, weather, job schedule or personal reasons, has a way to help select the party’s nominee for President of the United States.

The virtual caucus will essentially serve as an additional county in each congressional district in Iowa, and will represent 10% of each district’s representation at the state convention. Users of the virtual caucus will be able to select their top 5 preferences for President, choose whether they want to put forth their name as a possible delegate, and submit platform proposals to be adopted by the party.

“The Iowa Democratic Party has always sought ways to improve our caucus process, and today, we are setting the stage for the 2020 Iowa caucuses to be the most accessible, transparent, and successful caucuses in our party’s history,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price.

This will be welcome news for many Iowa Democrats who wish to participate in the caucus, but simply don’t have the time required. Unlike a primary, where an individual voter walks in, casts a vote, and walks out, the Caucus system typically requires hours of allotted time to complete.

First, participants meet at homes or community locations. Then they discuss the candidates, then they put in their candidate choices. Those votes are tallied, then the bottom candidates are dropped off meaning that the process goes on for hours in most cases.

The normal process will still be available, according to the Iowa Democratic Party:

The traditional caucus format will continue largely in tact, but those who sign up for the virtual caucus will not be allowed to participate in the precinct format to prevent any double voting. Party leaders said during a conference call that they are still working out details on the plan to ensure a secure system.

This type of move is most likely aimed at getting more involvement from younger voters who are less likely to participate in the traditional caucus process.

Iowa and New Hampshire have faced challenges every year in terms of keeping their coveted early slots on the presidential primary calendar. So far, they continue to fight off rogue states seeking to upend the process, but will that continue in the coming cycles? Watch the signs in 2020 for a changing shift as candidates strategize routes to the nomination that don’t involve winning these early states and you’ll have your answer.