News

Debate as old as caucus time: Should Iowa go first?

Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro talks with veterans after Veterans Day services Nov. 11 in Cedar Rapids. Castro this past week kicked off what has become an every-four-year tradition of questioning whether Iowa should retain its lead-off spot in the presidential nominating process. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro talks with veterans after Veterans Day services Nov. 11 in Cedar Rapids. Castro this past week kicked off what has become an every-four-year tradition of questioning whether Iowa should retain its lead-off spot in the presidential nominating process. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

It took a little longer this time.

That a presidential candidate started it was a new wrinkle.

And so it was, that once again this past week we all engaged in that quadrennial discussion of whether Iowa should be the first state in the nation to formally weigh in on its presidential candidates.

Like the Olympics and mild winters, this discussion happens every four years. Iowans, by now, are accustomed to the debate.

Usually it’s a national columnist or TV pundit who reignites the debate by suggesting that Iowa should not be the state that leads off the presidential nominating process.

This time it was one of the candidates who is trying to win said state.

Julian Castro became honorary grand marshal of the 2020 cycle’s version of the “Should Iowa Be First?” parade when, during a cable TV interview, he suggested that no, Iowa should not be first.

To be sure, that’s a bold campaign strategy for a candidate trying to win over voters in Iowa: to tell them they should no longer hold the privilege of going first.

The rest of the debate was predictable, only because we’ve had it before. A number of times. Again ... every four years.

To recap for anyone new to the state or its political scene: Critics contend Iowa should not be the first state in the presidential nominating process for myriad reasons, most commonly because its demographics are not representative of the country (Iowa is much whiter, older and more rural than the country on average) and because the caucuses are complicated and by their nature exclude many would-be voters from the process.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Supporters of Iowa’s enviable first-in-the-nation status concede the state’s demographic limitations but highlight its progressive support for historic candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And supporters say Iowa’s a perfect early state because a candidate can start a race without a lot of money and still be successful by engaging voters in a grassroots-style campaign that does not rely primarily on TV advertising.

Now that we’re all caught up, we can prepare for ... nothing. Nothing is going to happen. Certainly not in the immediate future. This debate has popped up every four years, and yet every four years Iowa remains first in line. The reasons for that are numerous: partly because the state hasn’t royally screwed up (although 2012 and 2016 shook the foundation a little), and partly because of inertia. You can get a lot of states to agree Iowa shouldn’t be first; when you then ask which state should be first, that unity will inevitably weaken.

That’s not to say Iowa’s leadoff spot is inevitable or permanent. There are enough legitimate issues with Iowa and the caucuses that political leaders at the national level could decide to make a change.

Let’s put it this way: It’s not going to change because of one presidential candidate. It could change, however, because of one president who does not think Iowa should be first.

I’d like to sign off with a little personal insight into this debate. I can’t speak for the entire Iowa press corps, only myself. But I mean it sincerely when I tell you that it does not matter to me even the tiniest bit whether Iowa is the first or last in the nation in the presidential nominating process.

I say this because I feel there’s a widely held assumption that the Iowa media is somehow protective of the caucuses because they want Iowa to be first, too.

Maybe that’s true of some of my colleagues. Again, I can’t speak for them, only for myself. But for me, that is not true.

With or without Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, I have a job to do covering Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. (It’s not every column that I’m able to steal right from my own tagline.) With or without those quadrennial visits by White House hopefuls, there is plenty happening across the state to cover, and I enjoy that coverage every bit as much, oftentimes more so.

Now that we’ve covered all that ... See you again in four years.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.