The political spotlight that illuminates Iowa every four years is fading — after first morphing into a heat lamp interrogating its first-in-the-nation status — allowing political experts and analysts more space for retrospection, introspection and anticipation of what’s on the state’s horizon.
“I did not think that it would end up the way it did,” University of Northern Iowa political science professor Christopher Larimer told The Gazette, “in terms of the delay in reporting the results, the problem with the app, the problem with the call center, and everything else.”
But Larimer, who’s been a close observer of Iowa politics as a UNI professor for 14 years, said he did have some predictions about this year’s caucuses — and potential pitfalls. And he has projections about the future of the state’s electoral status — namely that it will be harder than ever to maintain unchanged.
“I think there’s more uncertainty around it than there ever has been.”
Q: How much say does Iowa have in keeping its first-in-the-nation status?
A: “They absolutely have a say, but they’ve generally been able to reach an agreement with the (Democratic National Committee),” Larimer said of the local party’s negotiations with its national leadership — also working with New Hampshire, which hosts the country’s first primary.
“It’s kind of Iowa and New Hampshire making their case to the DNC, the DNC agreeing to that, and they’ve been able to agree to that the last few cycles and keep it the way it is,” he said. “Obviously this year that conversation is going to be much tougher, more difficult.”
Q: What is the national party’s position?
A: “Even before this year, the DNC was encouraging states to move away from a caucus system,” Larimer said. “And so this isn’t going to help that.”
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Switching Iowa to a primary moves it out of first place — as New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is written into law. But a shake-up would leave the national committee with tough decisions.
“The last few cycles, there was a lot of criticism about Iowa and New Hampshire going first,” Larimer said. “But I think, in part, what prevented changes is that, if it’s not Iowa going first, then who goes first? And that’s a tougher argument for the DNC to tackle than just leaving Iowa first.”
Q: Did you foresee this year’s caucus problems coming? Or were you surprised by the trouble that emerged on caucus night?
A: “I thought it would take longer, and it might present some confusion when the results were reported — as far as reporting three separate numbers,” Larimer said, referring to changes requiring precincts to report the initial vote, final vote — after non-viable candidates are cut — and state delegate equivalents.
“I also thought there could be some backlash or criticism if you had a case where someone had more votes in the first alignment and/or the final alignment, but then that didn’t match up with the state delegate equivalents,” he said. “That happens every year, but those numbers were always behind the scenes.”
Those potential concerns were overshadowed by long delays and reporting, which “bled over into criticism about the process, about the math, and how this works.”
Q: What do you think the storylines would have been had results been reported promptly, without problems?
A: “When you have a delay, and there are questions about even the validity of the results, that takes away from the big storyline that usually comes out of the caucuses, which is all about expectations,” he said. “Having said that … I think a couple of the storylines would have been about (Pete) Buttigieg doing well, Amy Klobuchar with a pretty respectable finish, and then the concern in the (Joe) Biden campaign.”
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He also noted Elizabeth Warren’s third-place finish could have given her more momentum — but for the overshadowing process questions.
“The whole saying about three tickets out of Iowa, you know, at that time, she still had one of those three tickets out of Iowa.”
Q: What do you see as the future of Iowa’s relevance in the presidential election process?
A: “I think it’s a little too early to know, but it could be, if it unfolds where you have a case where like someone like Michael Bloomberg, who just skipped the early states, ends up being the nominee, I wouldn’t think that would bode well for the caucuses,” Larimer said.
He also pointed to concerns about low turnout.
“If you look at the turnout rate in Iowa, compared to New Hampshire or other early states with primaries, there’s an enormous gap,” he said. “And so I think a big part of it is, for the DNC — if they value participation and turnout — caucuses are not necessarily the best method for that.”
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