Oscars So White? Consider New Hampshire Voters and Their (White) Vibe

New Hampshire voters have finally spoken, ending the latest quadrennial obsession with the political mood of the good people of the Granite State. For decades New Hampshire has enjoyed the distinction of voting first, putting an undeniable spin on the primaries that follow it, and on the presidential election itself.

As Jeb Bush told a Portsmouth audience shortly before the balloting began: "You're the first-in-the-nation primary. If you don't think the pundits are right -- the obituaries that have been written about all the candidates, including me, that it's all done, it's all figured out -- if you disagree with that, you can reset this race tomorrow. You have that power."

Yes, the good people of New Hampshire sure do. Or should I say the white people?

I have long found it oddly anachronistic that New Hampshire, and Iowa, too, should be such critical determinants in presidential elections -- as if they are the ultimate in American focus groups, even if neither is especially populous or even racially diverse.


This is by no means a new observation, but it's one that would seem to matter more these days, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and even the current hullabaloo over the latest Academy Award nominations, also known as #OscarsSoWhite.

But forget about the Oscars -- even if Donald Trump's New Hampshire victory speech, with its opening litany of thank-yous, sounded scripted for the Academy Awards. What about Iowa and New Hampshire, where about 90 percent of residents are white, compared to about 75 percent nationally?

In 2016, you might think there'd be a better way of setting the electoral stage than deferring to the (white) voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, well-intentioned though they may be. And while ethnicity is a significant factor, the American political stew has many ingredients. Our great nation is remarkable for its many-splendored mix of values, cultures, ages, sensibilities, experiences, economies and geographies -- a marvelous mashup that we in California (who must haplessly wait until June to cast our primary ballots) might aptly call the American vibe.

So it would seem to make sense that voters who get the privilege of setting the electoral stage for nearly 320 million Americans should be as representative of the country as possible, not only in terms of race but, ideally, the American vibe.

That vibe of course varies greatly from location to location. In California, as in many other states, crossing city or county or state lines can be like crossing into different worlds. If you drive straight outta Compton, for example, it doesn't take long to get to Beverly Hills -- talk about a different vibe, and you'll experience a few different vibes along the way.

I drove through Nevada recently and the signs that I wasn't in Los Angeles any more were noticeable as soon as I stopped for gas, from the station's wall-to-wall slot machines, to gas prices about a dollar per gallon cheaper, to the NRA baseball cap on the man filling up his pickup truck nearby.

At least Nevada primary voters -- in stark contrast to those in late-voting states like California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and the Dakotas -- will soon be able to put their mark on the presidential election, before the cast of candidates has been further whittled down from the eclectic group that initially hit the campaign trail in Iowa. In terms of whiteness, Nevada more closely mirrors the general U.S. population. It also has a distinctly Western vibe.

But black lives, and voters, will matter more in the upcoming Republican and Democratic South Carolina primaries, which, like Nevada's, take place toward the end of February. African Americans make up 28 percent of the South Carolina populace, about twice the percentage in the general the U.S. population. Plus there'll be a Southern vibe.

While these states at least get to cast primary votes sooner rather than later, there is still nothing quite like going first, because the first primaries clearly matter, as we were just reminded again with the solid wins by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the campaign-sustaining second-place finish by John Kasich. Jeb Bush declared that he got the "reset" he needed -- while admitting that "the reality TV star is still doing well."

As you watch the electoral version of a reality show unfold, you can't help but wonder: How different might this rather dramatic contest now look if the primaries had kicked off in Nevada and South Carolina -- or in any number of other states?

Both Iowa and New Hampshire jealously guard their primary primacy -- both states have laws to maintain their early elections and thwart any efforts to cut into line. One oft-stated rationale for allowing the nation's political agenda to be set by these two states is their relatively manageable size. It makes them ideal settings for "retail politics," the kind that supposedly force candidates to practice a more personal, township-to-township, baby-kissing campaign style. (New Hampshire, at about 1.3 million souls, is just a bit larger than Dallas; Iowa's population, at just over three million, is considerably smaller than that of the city of, say, Los Angeles.)

There may indeed be value in up-close-and-personal politicking, but neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has a monopoly on greasy spoons, neighborhood bars or high school gyms. In fact, if you could carve out a primary niche between Compton and Beverly Hills -- now that would bring a whole new reality, and vibe, to retail politics.

Just imagine Bernie Sanders railing against the one percent at the Beverly Wilshire, or maybe Donald Trump grabbing a bite with the regulars at Mom's Burgers, in Compton (Warren Beatty, as Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth in Bulworth, comes to mind). In this hypothetical primary, the candidates could also make stops in nearby Gardena or Huntington Park ("the city of perfect balance"), with their large Latino populations.

There isn't anything said in the Constitution about primaries, so we the people could conceivably tweak the existing system however we wanted to, although between state laws and party rules, an attempted jump to the front of the line in 2012 by Michigan and Florida turned into a cautionary tale.

"Super Tuesday" was established in the late 1980s to bring some balance and broader perspective to the early primaries. It may not have been a perfect solution -- the number of participating states has changed over time, and Super Tuesday is still greatly influenced by the reality of what happened in New Hampshire and Iowa. But at least when you have states like Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas and Vermont voting on the same day, it begins to feel like we're getting a more genuine and colorful reflection of the American vibe.

I know, I know. The current system produced our first black president. On this point I think I'll defer to Halle Berry, a Bulworth co-star, who, in 2002, became the first woman of color to win the Oscar for best actress - and she thought everything would change.