Staff Columnist

If not Iowa, who?

Iowans must commit to improving, protecting valuable caucus process

A precinct caucus guide lies on a table during Iowa City Democratic precinct caucuses at City High in Iowa City on Monday, February 5, 2018. Attendance was high at the Democratic caucus sites despite heavy snowfall throughout the day. (KC McGinnis/The Gazette)
A precinct caucus guide lies on a table during Iowa City Democratic precinct caucuses at City High in Iowa City on Monday, February 5, 2018. Attendance was high at the Democratic caucus sites despite heavy snowfall throughout the day. (KC McGinnis/The Gazette)
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“So, how did Iowa fare in Chicago?”

That’s the question I posed to a local friend, a member of the Democratic National Committee, after he recently returned from the group’s summer meeting in Illinois. It’s one of many quiet exchanges so commonplace in “first-in-the-nation” Iowa, yet so rarely picked up by the national media.

Party insiders or not, most Iowans want to know leadership on both sides of the political aisle is doing what must be done to protect and defend the state’s role in the presidential nomination process.

On the Big D side, Iowa fared well, despite frustrating 2018 caucus issues that had half the world talking about coin tosses, and party faithful lamenting faulty reporting software. The Hawkeye State, according to delegate selection rules approved at the Chicago meeting, once again will lead the nomination calendar with caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020.

The move was expected since a preliminary calendar — leading with Iowa and New Hampshire, followed by Nevada and South Carolina — was drafted by the Rules and Bylaws Committee in May and advanced to the full DNC in June. The four are the only states that can hold contests before the first Tuesday in March, which is March 3, 2020.

On the Republican side, the Rules and Bylaws Committee received a recommendation in May for no changes to the primary process, which also would leave the four “carve-out” states leading the way in 2020. A final decision is expected at the end of the month, with no changes on the horizon. This is partly because President Donald Trump exited the Iowa caucuses in the top three, and won the New Hampshire primary. When it comes to setting the nomination calendar, it’s always good to have the favor of the incumbent.

Other reasons Iowa continues to lead also are wrapped up in the political parties, tasked with running the caucuses. (Unlike a primary, which is run by state government.) Iowa’s partisan leaders work in tandem, pushing their respective national committees to continue the tradition. National groups are likely to agree, given that Iowa’s fertile ground is known for nurturing campaigns as much as corn and soybeans, and because Iowans built a reputation for taking the process seriously.

Even so, every four years, a drumbeat of calls to remove Iowa’s status as first-in-the-nation begins. At times, the drums sound from within the state. Having grown up in a politically barren wasteland, it is discouraging to realize some Iowans have no idea how important their status is and how fervently they should protect it.

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Criticisms that Iowa is not representative of the nation have been uttered for years, leading the national parties to add Nevada and South Carolina to the early lineup. But while such criticisms are plentiful, alternatives that continue to cultivate robust candidate participation are few. There is simply no state that is representative of the entire country, and few with the necessary infrastructure to conduct a caucus of such magnitude.

Most recent internal criticisms tend to focus specifically on caucus night, and the mechanisms and rules put in place by the parties. People mistakenly compare what happens that night to a primary election, which is something it was never meant to be.

Caucuses center on party building, not candidate selection. They start at the precinct level and advance delegates to the national convention. Central committees are established along the way — county, district and state bodies that provide leadership opportunities and shepherd campaigns toward the election.

Contrary to popular belief, Iowans do not choose a presidential nominee. Our task is much more morbid (and necessary). The Iowa caucuses signal the nation who isn’t ready, who isn’t gaining traction, who hasn’t learned how to organize a campaign, who isn’t capable of gathering the limited amount of funding necessary to compete in a small media market.

Iowans don’t fulfill this duty on a single snowy night in February, but rather over the course of a political marathon. (In January 2018, for instance, Iowans viewed the first ads of the 2020 presidential contests — long before a date had been set for caucus night.)

When candidates leave Iowa for other states, they don’t talk about the strength of their preference groups or how many slips of paper they collected on caucus night, they share the Iowa stories they heard on the journey. Candidates share what they learned, and how those lessons have shaped their campaign and policy proposals.

These stories are the culmination of burned shoe leather, of months spent at diners and kitchen tables. They represent late nights at union halls, and early mornings on farms; tours of towns drenched by floodwaters, and research labs developing new fuels.

Party faithful and casual observers have multiple opportunities to kick a candidates’ tires, and many take advantage.

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Over the years, Iowans have allowed a national assessment about what their state is and what it should be warp perceptions of the process. Some who have never felt the misery of living elsewhere mistakenly believe presidential candidates still would spend time, still listen, still advance our concerns and stories without the caucuses. That’s simply not reality.

Without the caucuses, Iowa is, politically speaking, nothing. There would be no parade of presidential hopefuls. Because Iowa’s contribution to the electoral college is so low, there would be few, if any, campaign staffers sent to organize. Our own statewide candidates already travel elsewhere for fundraising; we aren’t a big money state. Without the caucuses, local and state party committees would be lucky to draw a notable speaker.

And let’s not brush aside the economic boost of the caucuses. New Hampshire has done a much better job of showing its residents how an early contest contributes to the local economy. Iowans have not been provided anything close to a comprehensive estimate, but, based on New Hampshire numbers, it is easily in the millions. Those are dollars from political operatives who come to our state in support of the campaigns, and tourism money from those who travel from neighboring states for an opportunity to experience being so up-close and personal with someone who may one day become president. Campaign coffers boost communities large and small through facility rentals and ongoing travel. The list goes on.

This doesn’t mean state parties shouldn’t come under scrutiny when February’s national spotlight exposes weaknesses. We should ask why local caucus sites didn’t have enough voter registration forms, and why software malfunctioned. Iowans should look for ways to make caucus night more inclusive, especially for those who choose not to register with a party, and do a better job of explaining how what we do differs from “one person, one vote” elections.

In addition to our quiet conversations, we need to find opportunities to shout about the millions of people who participate in and benefit from our unusual process.

Iowa is fortunate enough to be first once again. It’s an announcement worth celebrating, and a tradition worth protecting.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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