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. The candidates flock there well before election year for steak fries and county fairs, endless town halls and glad handling.
Former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and his state’s Democratic Party want to change all that. For more than a year, Mr. Reid has publicly called for the primary calendar to be turned upside down — pushing Nevada, of course, to the front.
The Democratic-controlled Nevada Legislature took a step closer toward that goal this week, introducing a bill that would eliminate the state’s caucus process and replace it with a primary to be held in late January of presidential election years. The bill is likely to sail to approval and be signed by Gov. 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 will not likely come for another year and will surely need the approval of President Biden, who lost Nevada to Bernie Sanders in 2020.
The Times recently spoke by phone to Mr. Reid about his desire to change the calendar and make Nevada the first in the nation to vote in the presidential election. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with the basic question: What is the case for Nevada going first?
Well if you look at Iowa and New Hampshire and you look at how Joe Biden did in those two states — he took fourth and fifth in those two states. Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the country. There’s no diversity. So it’s unfair, in my opinion, to have those as the first two primary states because it really gives the wrong impression of what the country is all about.
I’m also convinced the caucus system is as close to worthless as anything can be. Caucuses are unfair. The Democratic Party should get rid of all of them. They’re just not fair.
If Nevada had held the first primary in 2020, how do you think the election would have been different?
I’m not saying that it has to be first, but I think that it has to be one of the first. I have talked to Congressman Clyburn, and I want to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure that South Carolina and Nevada are two of the early states. It’s not right that Iowa and New Hampshire set the tone of the election process during that cycle.
I have no problem with having regional primaries. Deserves more attention.
What could that look like?
Well, you have to have perhaps in the West, you have to exclude California because so many voters there, but you would have Idaho, Utah, New Mexico. So that would be one region suggested and that would be the idea of what we do around the rest of the country with regional primaries. I think you could get some traction here.
Biden didn’t win Nevada in the Democratic nominating primaries when it was the third state to vote. Would it have made a difference for him if Nevada had voted first?
What saved Joe is in Nevada he came in second. Had he not come in second in Nevada, going into South Carolina in the next few days wouldn’t have been great for him. But his having come in second showed viability, and as a result of Clyburn’s endorsement of him in South Carolina, that propelled him into this nomination for president.
Can you explain a little bit some differences between Nevada voters and Iowa and New Hampshire voters beyond racial diversity?
Racial diversity, of course, is one thing. Union membership is another thing we have in Nevada. Number three, the population center of America is moving west. It used to be that a majority of people in America were east of the Mississippi River. Now it’s just the opposite. So I think it’s important that people understand that the West is now heavily populated and is taking over being the center of our country.
The unions are so strong in Nevada politics. Will that warp a first in the nation primary because candidates will be so focused on union endorsements, giving unions more influence there?
I think union political activity is only part of what goes on in the state of Nevada or in any other state. We have union membership, which is important, but you also have the same in other states. Arizona has strong union membership and surprisingly, even a state like Utah, the Salt Lake area is heavily unionized.
Can you explain a little bit more what you said about South Carolina? Is your desire for those two 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 poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. Then he came to Nevada and came in second, went to South Carolina and did very well. There’s nothing wrong with — as far as I’m concerned — having elections on the same day and different states.
And of course, all of this is going to come down to both President Biden and the D.N.C. favoring it and then giving this big blow to Iowa and New Hampshire. The merits won’t really matter if nobody wants to make Iowa and New Hampshire angry. So how do you get Biden and the D.N.C. to commit to this and skip over Iowa and New Hampshire?
This 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’ve talked to Tom Perez lots of times when he was chairman, so he knows how I feel. But I have no commitments, that’s not anything that I’ve done. I’m just trying to spark a dialogue that I think is really important now rather than last minute.
South Carolina, by all accounts, has been the most important factor in the last three Democratic primaries, meaning that Black voters had the biggest impact on choosing the nominee. So why the case for diversity from Nevada specifically?
I believe that Nevada is a diverse state and the Black vote in South Carolina is really important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important. You know we have here in Nevada a very strong culinary union with probably 75,000 members. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who have anything to say about what’s happening in an election in Nevada. And it’s the same in South Carolina. African-American vote is really important, but you need to do other things in the state than capture the Black vote.
What I keep trying to get at is why does this even matter? The first three states ultimately didn’t determine the outcome of the primary in 2020, and Biden wasn’t really competitive in any of them. So what difference does it make?
Well, of course, it does matter because he came in second here in Nevada and that propelled him into South Carolina with some momentum.
Can you speak a bit about what difference it makes in general for who goes first? Like if you’re somebody who’s not paying attention to politics in January of an election year, why should you care who goes first?
I believe that it focuses attention on the election that’s upcoming. And I think it’s important that those states represent what’s happening within the Democratic Party around the country.
There’s of course always been these jokes made about all the attention on ethanol during the primary because of Iowa. What are the issues that you think would get a lot of attention in Nevada?
Public lands and tourism. Tourism is the number one, two or three, rising economic force in every state — that’s an issue they need to focus more attention on.