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Calendar change throws uncertainty over Iowa caucuses
Iowa advocates warn Democrats will lose rural states
Iowa is known nationally mostly for corn and caucuses. Now maybe just the corn.
The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee approved a new calendar Friday for its presidential nominating process — taking away Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status and moving it out of the early window entirely.
The move, designed to give people of color a more prominent role in the presidential nominating process, could have huge ramifications for Democratic politics in Iowa and the national campaign process.
For both parties, Iowa’s caucuses have served as the starting gun for the national presidential primary since 1972. Republicans this year kept the early states for their calendar intact, meaning that in 2024, Iowa still will hold the first nominating contest for the Republican presidential hopefuls, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
The national importance of the caucuses happened essentially by accident, said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University. At the precinct caucuses in 1972, some organizers decided to gauge attendees’ preference for president.
“It was simply just sticking your finger up in the air to get a sense of the temperature, that’s about all that is,” he said.
Then in 1976, Jimmy Carter, a lesser-known governor from Georgia, campaigned in Iowa and won the most support among the Democratic candidates. That was largely instrumental in catapulting the state into the outsized importance in presidential politics it has had for the past five decades.
The latest move puts the national party at odds with Iowa law, which requires both major parties to hold caucuses before the last Monday in February and before any other state’s contest. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement Thursday the party still intends to hold its caucuses as prescribed by law.
Change raises questions for Iowa’s caucuses
University of Iowa law professor Derek Muller, an election law expert, said the new proposed early nominating calendar leaves large open questions in the weeks ahead.
If the DNC places South Carolina in the leadoff position, and Iowa and New Hampshire barge ahead in contravention of party rules to hold early contests, how will the DNC respond?
States can hold whatever presidential caucuses or primaries they like, but the national party is not obligated to recognize the results. The DNC rules committee passed rules Friday that would strip half of a state’s delegates if it holds a contest outside the required window, and allows the party to vote to remove all the state’s delegates entirely.
Will the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature keep on the books the state law that requires holding caucuses and that Iowa be first? Wilburn acknowledged in his statement that the law would stand.
If it does, do Democratic Party precinct caucuses then become a straw poll or beauty contest, with no recognized effect by the DNC, forcing state Democrats to hold a separate, off-book meeting to comply with party rules?
“I think Iowa will have a caucus. I think the question is, what are they going to do with that caucus?” Muller said. “There’s some ambiguity in the statute whether or not holding a caucus means they have to be choosing delegates to a nominating convention, or if they can just essentially be having party meetings” by the state deadline and then holding a primary or something resembling a primary in March to satisfy the party.
“It certainly leaves some open questions about how the party will respond, while attempting to comply with the law on the books,” Muller said. “If candidates still campaign here and attempt to win the state, regardless of the effect it has on the convention, it still has an impact — Iowa is still influencing the process. … That said, I don’t think Iowa Democrats are playing from a position of strength. So I don’t know how much they’ll be able to buck the process and try to do something different.”
The revamped nominating lineup could largely be moot for 2024 if President Joe Biden runs effectively unopposed for the Democratic nomination. But it may lay the groundwork to remake Democratic presidential cycles after that, Muller said.
Biden has said for months he intends to run again, and White House aides have begun making staffing discussions for his likely re-election campaign, though no final decision has been made.
Biden wrote in a letter to DNC rules committee members Thursday that the party should scrap “restrictive” caucuses altogether in favor of primaries because their rules on in-person participation can sometimes exclude working-class and other voters. He also wrote that the party “must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window."
State Democrats are quick to note that it was Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state, that propelled Barack Obama’s rise to become America’s first Black president in 2008.
However, Iowa’s political makeup has changed dramatically since 2008, from a reliable swing state to solidly Republican.
New states risk cheap campaigning
Muller, the UI law professor, said far and away the biggest positive of the Iowa caucuses was that it gave underdog candidates a chance and kept a party’s nomination competitive. A small state with cheap media markets and an emphasis on in-person organizing gave lesser-known candidates and new ideas a voice.
“I don’t see other states replicating what the Iowa process has. At least not with the calendar they’ve got,” Muller said. “That window gave you Barack Obama, and I’m not sure this calendar would.”
While not all winners of Iowa caucuses would go on to win the nomination, “it certainly established the legitimacy of candidates in ways that are going to be difficult for underdogs going forward,” he said.
“These are some states with some expensive media markets. Now, South Carolina is not huge, right? It, potentially, is going to offer that opportunity,” Muller said. “But to have Michigan and Georgia so quickly after, it will change some of the dynamics of the race. And it will make it all the more difficult for candidates moving forward, who might win early in a state like South Carolina, but it will be difficult to sustain that in ways I think you could have under the old calendar.”
Scott Brennan, an Iowan who sits on the rules committee and voted against the proposal, along with other DNC members raised concerns about clustering the first three early states so closely together, separated by four days, arguing it would diminish traditional retail politics — like candidate meet and greets — of the early window.
Democrats’ organizing power
The change is also likely to be a blow to Iowa Democrats’ organizing capacity in future presidential election years, especially with Republicans retaining their first-in-the-nation status.
The caucus process allowed for grassroots organizing around various candidates much earlier than campaigns would usually start organizing, said David Redlawsk, a political-science professor at the University of Delaware who has taught in Iowa and studied the caucuses.
“One of the reasons Democrats in Iowa had done well, and especially in prior cycles before 2010, was the caucus process allowing the kind of organization that’s absolutely necessary at the grassroots,” he said.
In its bid to remain in the early window, the Iowa Democratic Party attempted to persuade the rules committee Iowa was still a swing state, and the loss of the early Democratic caucuses would cause Iowa to “drift to the right.”
Brennan argued Democrats were weakening their ability to compete in rural, midwestern states by eliminating Iowa from the calendar.
“Republicans in Iowa will seize this opportunity to double down on their caucuses and feed the narrative that Democrats have turned their back on Iowa,” Brennan said Friday, presaging a statement from the Republican governor later doing just that. “...We are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of electoral failure and creating a Fox News bubble for our presidential candidates in which they have no opportunity or responsibility to meet and communicate with voters in red-leaning states.”
State party officials and candidates bemoaned the lack of national investment to support Iowa Democrats in the 2022 elections, where they suffered even more losses in yet another election cycle — including losing the sole Democrat seat Iowa had in Congress.
"I want folks in Iowa also to understand that this does not diminish your value as a state and what you bring to America and what you bring to this party," DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said Friday during the rules committee meeting in Washington. "We will continue to work with Iowa to make sure that you all have resources that you can compete on the congressional level, on the state and legislative level. That commitment is unwavering.”
Republicans in Iowa, who have been strong proponents of the state keeping its spot in the Democratic calendar, derided the proposed calendar, which still must be approved by the full DNC.
“Democrats have abandoned rural America and denied everyday Iowans a voice in the presidential nominating process,” Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her statement. “Make no mistake, Iowa Republicans will continue to protect this time-honored tradition.”