Has Iowa Had Its Last First Caucus?

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Every few years for the past four decades, Iowa’s prime placement in American politics has come under threat. The arguments against Iowa’s outsize role in choosing each party’s nominee for president are always the same: The state is too white—90.6 percent white, to be exact—making it completely unrepresentative of the American electorate. Caucuses are messy and volunteer-led, meaning that the process is vulnerable to all kinds of problems (see the great caucus disaster of 2020). Plus, it’s cold as hell in February in Iowa, not exactly the weather most conducive to lining up outside middle-school gymnasiums.

Despite this criticism, Iowa has, partly through sheer force of midwestern determination, always managed to hang on to its spot as the first presidential nominating contest. This year, though, Iowa Democrats are closer than ever before to losing their treasured election status. The remaining defenders of the state’s role recognize this dire reality. “The clouds have gathered here,” Kurt Meyer, a local party leader from rural Marshall County who has helped run seven caucuses since 1976, told me. “You play King of the Hill enough times and eventually you get pushed off your perch.”

A primer for the newly initiated: The Democratic National Committee forbids most states from holding their presidential nominating contest before the first Tuesday in March. Four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—are exempt from that rule. Iowa actually has a law on the books requiring its caucus to take place before any other nominating contest, giving the state its first-in-the-nation honorific. In Iowa, both parties hold a caucus, but they look a bit different; Democrats physically sort themselves, while Republicans use secret ballots.

The trouble right now for Iowa and the other usually early states is that the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee is considering a proposal that would require any state that wants an exemption to apply for it anew. Committee members would then evaluate each state—most likely based on its diversity, its general-election competitiveness, and its ability to run an inclusive contest, according to the Des Moines Register. If the Rules committee moves forward with some sort of application process, Iowa will probably have to make a formal case for itself sometime in early summer. (National Republicans will most likely hold their 2024 caucus as planned.)

This year’s urge to shake things up was most likely sparked by the Great Caucus Screw-Up of 2020, in which Iowans bungled their one job by relying on a wonky app and racking up a number of tabulation inconsistencies. But a case can be made for Iowa staying first in the Democrats’ lineup—and state Democratic leaders are eager to make it.

The Hawkeye State, in case you haven’t heard, is very flat and relatively small. Candidates can travel the length of it in about four hours, and the width in five, making campaigning easy enough. In the span of a single day, a presidential wannabe can tour a farm, kiss babies in a union town, and glad-hand people in a city. TV and radio ads are cheaper in Iowa than in many other states, including neighboring swing states Michigan and Wisconsin. Iowa is perhaps one of the few states in the union where an ambitious politician with few resources and even less name recognition—a junior senator from Illinois, say—can actually compete with a better-funded, better-known candidate. In Iowa, the path for future presidents is well-trod: The kingmakers and party elders and precinct captains have been doing this for decades. They’re practiced in the art of evaluating future presidents and political leaders. “If you choose a new state, it’s like being at the edge of a wilderness and saying, ‘Well, I’ll just dive in and see what happens,’” Meyer said. “In Iowa you have a pathway through the wilderness.”

Democratic Party leaders in the state will make a political case for leaving Iowa alone too. Iowa has become a redder state in recent years, as rural people and non-college-educated white voters side more often with the GOP. Further alienating rural Americans could be a disaster for the Democrats, party officials argue. “To simply discount Iowa by the numbers is an insult to Iowans and it feeds into a narrow-minded view of what’s possible in rural America,” Ross Wilburn, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, told me. State GOP leaders are already practicing their talking points: If the DNC “gives up on Iowa, this is literally the middle finger at rural America,” Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said last month.

As a born-and-raised Iowan, I’m conflicted. Iowa is not representative of the country, nor even of the Democratic Party, and I’ve seen firsthand how messy the caucus process is and how many Iowans are unable to participate. But that messiness, to me, is also what makes the caucus process great. The fact that it’s run almost entirely by volunteers, who in my experience have tended to only loosely follow the state party’s rules, makes the process feel homemade and honest. The caucus is one of the most intimate forms of politics: standing with your neighbors in a high-school cafeteria, debating policy and being ordered around by an elderly caucus chair who’s been doing this job for free since 1976. There is something glorious about the unwieldiness of it all, something that Iowans understandably want to cling to.

Still, the stronger case is probably the one against Iowa. The caucus’s remaining defenders, who probably constitute only half of Iowa Democrats, recognize that they might actually lose this time. Iowa has a more-than-decent chance of being denied a waiver, and if it doesn’t get one, the state will have to rethink its plans for 2024 or 2028. Some Democrats argue that the state should go ahead and hold the caucus first anyway, regardless of what the DNC says. Iowa’s own state law requires it to go first, after all, and holding an unsanctioned caucus would dare the DNC to disinvite an entire state from the next convention. “We’re always challenged, and we’ve always survived,” Dave Nagle, a former congressman and longtime advocate for the caucuses, told me. Whether or not Iowa gets a waiver, “we will this time, too.”

We’ll know Iowa’s fate by summertime, if the committee’s process proceeds as predicted. The next question could be whether Iowans do as they’re told.

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